Cowboys & Aliens

Had a great time with this summer excitainment. Like Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies, it’s light and enjoyable, just enough tongue in cheek. He makes a traditional western first, and a science fiction blockbuster second, and that is why it works.

He also gives us characters. Jake Lonergan and the Colonel aren’t always likable. Taking a hint from his pal Vince Vaughn in Swingers, he has always given us characters we’re not sure we like in the beginning. Now, they’re not on par with Downey’s over the top Stark, but they fit the Western archetypes and flesh them out. I’d watch this movie if no aliens were involved. He peoples his cast with colorful character actors, like Clancy Brown’s preacher and Sam Rockwell’s Doc. Who’s a bartender. The women get a little short shrift, except for Olivia Wilde’s character, and she’s too mysterious to have much substance. But it works, and once the aliens show up we care what happens to these people.

It’s funny how Westerns come and go. We haven’t had a real resurgence, just a few here and there. I’d like to see more. Japan still mines their samurai era past, but we’ve left ours behind our myths. We are uncomfortable destroying them.

3/4 – Worthy

© 2011 Thomas Pluck

WTF, Harrison Ford?

I knew you did carpentry, just not in Calvin Klein briefs. Looking good though. I think I hear some of my readers going “Hand Solo”

The Last Crusade, or Indiana Jones has Daddy Issues

In May 1989 Indy returned one more time; I would graduate high school that year a few weeks later. I remember we went to see it at the Wayne Loews theater, a mall hang-out infested with guidos, at least back then. It had been 5 years since the disappointment of Temple of Doom, and everyone was really psyched for the new movie.
I sort of have a love-hate relationship with the movie. It’s great compared to Temple, but it still leans more toward comic slapstick than adventure. It’s sort of what you’d expect the new movie to be, now that Harrison Ford is in his 60’s; he’s a kindler, gentler Indy, who’s more concerned with patching things up with Papa than kicking Nazi butt. The film also lacks a good villain; despite a visit to Berlin to a book-burning and a run-in with Hitler himself, the bad guy is lackluster Nazi colonel and a greedy collector who wants the Holy Grail so he can be immortal. they don’t live up to Major Toht or even Mola Ram. In the movie’s favor, it is one hell of a lot of fun, and for that all is forgiven.

Great shot, not so great villains

The movie begins in Indy’s adolescence and gives us a great origin for our hero. He’s a boy scout on a field trip in the Moab desert, beautifully filmed- it looks more exciting than the foreign places we end up in. He encounters a group of men ravaging a cave in the site, looking for, and finding, a golden cross. In one line, they erase the shabby history of the first sequel, when young Indiana declares, “that belongs in a museum.”

The man known only as Fedora

The beginning of the film is one of the best intros to a character; Casino Royale’s reboot of Bond comes close, but that’s about it in recent memory. Young Indy is played by River Phoenix, who sadly died face-first on the pavement of a speedball-induced overdose, thus robbing us of seeing him play the part again. He races from the bad guys on horseback and hops a circus train, and through a rapid succession of leaps from the frying pan into the fire, we learn where the whip, the fear of snakes, and the scar on Harrison’s Ford chin came from. When he gets home and Distant Dad is there poring over a manuscript, and once again Indy loses a historical artifact to a better-connected treasure hunter.

Goofy face, but the perfect young Indiana

But he doesn’t have to like it. And that’s where he gets the hat. The proto-Indy that he seems to model himself on is never named, and that’s for the better. The best stories leave us some mystery. Sometimes Indy’s family problems get a little too “TMI” in his third entry, but they wisely leave out the details so we aren’t distracted from the adventure.

It’s as if Indy’s douche-sense is tingling

Back in the present day, the plot structure resembles the first film; back at Marshall College, Professor Jones escapes from the mob of fans and is intercepted by Marcus Brody and some men in suits who have a job for him. This time instead of the government, it’s a rich industrialist named Walter Donovan, who needs help in his archaeological quest to find the holiest of Christian artifacts, the Holy Grail. Indy prattles off the facts he knows of the Grail legend, absorbed from his father’s obsession with it. He dismisses them until he finds out that his Old Man was the one they had on the job, and he’s gone missing.

Rats!

From there it’s off to Venice to get his trail before it’s cold; luckily Indy finds his father’s Grail Diary in his morning mail to help them along. In the city of canals and romance we meet their guide, Elsa, an Austrian beauty with just enough fire to make her a match for Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenscroft. They have good chemistry and hit it off, soon after discovering a hidden passage in an old church, swarming with rats.

Don’t hunt the Grail, and don’t eat the yellow snow.

Shortly thereafter they meet the Marx Brothers of Grail Knights, the Brothers of the Cruciform Sword. They look like Frank Zappa in fez hats and are about as effective in combat as the honkered rocker might be. Indy smacks them around all over the canals of Venice and finds out where his father is hidden, and we’re off to Austria.

And for my next impression… Jesse Owens!

At a castle on the Austrian border, Elsa and Indy bluff their way in the door pretending to be a Scottish Lord and his assistant; The severe Austrian butler is having none of it, and says in a badly dubbed line, “If you are a Scottish Lord, then I am Mickey Mouse!” Back in the day, I read the comic book that was released of the movie, and in that version he says “Jesse Owens” instead; I wonder if they thought no one would remember who Jesse Owens was, and how he humiliated the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics. Anyway, if you watch the film, listen to the delivery of that line and tell me it doesn’t sound dubbed.

Another fine mess

Indy finds Dad locked up in a room and they have a comic reunion; he smashes a vase over his son’s head and is more concerned that he may have broken an antique. He also says he mailed him the diary to”get it as far away from me as possible.” Ouch, Dad. To spite his Daddy, he refuses to believe who the traitor is, and it gets them both captured. Their escape is a marvel of editing, as they hop chairs through a burning castle, stumble through secret passageways and finally have a jousting session on motorcycles vs. Nazis to break free.

Someone saw Knightriders

This is probably Sean Connery’s funniest role, and his best in recent years. Much of the movie is comedy, but it works a hell of a lot better than Doom did, thanks to a fine cast. Marcus Brody is transformed from a dry colleague to an absent-minded professor who got lost in his own museum, and Dad is the same except with a great smirking ability to play the straight man. Indy is at his slapstick best, and there’s none of the scares from the previous films, except for the end. They keep the pace up, so we never notice. One of Marcus’s quick lines is “Water? No thank you, fish make love in it,” which is a bowdlerization of a famous W.C. Fields quote. Brody says it when he’s “blending in” at a Cairo bazaar.

Sallah, someone stole my traveler’s cheques.

The Grail Diary has been taken to Berlin, so they head there to get it; it’s really just a set-up for one of the best gags of the film. He tracks Elsa down to a Nazi bookburning, dons a Nazi officer’s uniform, and grabs the diary from her. But on the way out the crowd overwhelms him and he stumbles into Adolf Hitler himself… who signs the book. It reminded me of some of the wartime propaganda films where Mussolini and Hitler were spoofed as bumbling morons.

Sir, I bought Mein Kampf before it was enforced at gunpoint

Getting out of Germany is some of the best fun of the film, comparable to Raiders in how they move from one set piece to another so deftly. They hop a zeppelin, only to have to flee in the emergency biplane attached to the bottom when it turns around; then it’s a dogfight in the sky, a crash landing, a car chase through tunnels dodging bombs, and Dr. Jones Sr. gets to save the day. In a movie overrun with gags, my favorite is still “I’m sorry, but they got us.”

I’m sorry, but they got us.

They manage to top this chase later on in the desert, after the Three Stooges of the Cruciform Sword lead their suicide attack on the Nazis and their tank. For people with God on their side, they’re pretty bad at what they do. They’re still better than the albino wacko from the Da Vinci Code, though.

Indy goes after the tank on horseback when they capture Dad, in the movie’s most exciting sequence. They keep the comic tone throughout, so when Indy shoots people it’s always nearly bloodless and make funny somehow, like when he shoots five soldiers with one bullet. At least he didn’t have a gun stuck on his foot like Jar-Jar, but you could see where Lucas and Spielberg were going. I’m almost glad they waited 19 years before making the next Indy movie, because one made in ’95 might have had Indiana Jones using a walkie-talkie instead of a gun. Remember, Spielberg talked about changing the swordfight scene in Raiders, before they released the DVDs.

The film does have some touching moments as well, and while I may mock Spielberg for having Daddy Issues in nearly all his movies, he does a fine job here. Jones Sr. is distant, but very believable. I was serious when I said it was one of Sean Connery’s best roles. He really makes the Elder Jones a unique character, that is unlike James Bond, Officer Malone, or any other of his starring roles.

Latin Nerd Rage Ignite

My favorite part of the movie is the end with the puzzle traps protecting the Grail. With typical brutality, Donovan is sending soldiers in to defeat them, beheaded one by one. Indiana is forced in next, with his Dad’s Grail Diary for help. There’s even jokes here, and as a nerd who took Latin, one always bothered me. One puzzle involves The Name of God, and letters are carved into blocks on the floor. “Jehovah,” easy enough… “J…” Whoops! In Latin, Jehovah would start with a I! Well, not really, see. The problem is there was no fucking letter J back then. But who cares? It’s funny, and it made us nerds who took Latin laugh until we thought about it later, as nerds are wont to do.

The best visual effect in the movie is a masterwork of set design, the final Leap of Faith that tests our hero on the Grail Quest. It amazed me then and amazes me now. With CG it would be easy. The movie is full of recognizable trick effects where white outlines gleam around Nazis falling off cliffs, but the explosions are thankfully real. This trick tops them all, with the hidden path across the chasm. It’s the best reveal of the movie, and one of the best of the series.

What’s in your wallet?

The final test for the Grail is at the hands of the now elderly Knight guarding it, when you must choose from a bevy of gold cups. The movie is a wellspring of memorable quotes, nearly as many as Raiders; “No ticket!” is one, but “He chose… unwisely…” is the best. And while Julian Glover wasn’t a very slimy villain, we love seeing him get his comeuppance. It’s definitely akin to the face-meltings of the first movie, and almost better.

You dump me now, after I spent all that money on Botox?!

When I saw the film in ’89 on opening weekend, the fucking film stopped when it was Indy’s turn to drink from the Grail. For at least 5 minutes. We were all shouting at the projectionist, and to this day I think he was pranking us. It’s to the movie’s credit that we didn’t ask for our money back; once it started up again and we saw the great ending, all was forgiven. Seeing Indy reconcile with his Dad in the most perfect way possible touched on the Daddy Issues in all of us (or at least me) and washed away the sin of making the best pulp hero in history into a comedy act.

Dad, this symbolizes our relationship!Indiana. Let it go.

I’m told the new movie is most like Last Crusade in tone, and I can live with that. Making a movie as great as Raiders of the Lost Ark is no easy trick; making a sequel that’s better than the original has only happened with The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather, Part II (off the top of my head) and one can’t expect miracles from Hollywood. I really hate Shia LeDouche (okay, LaBoeuf) on screen, but I’m going to see it open-minded. After all, Spielberg made DiCaprio tolerable in Catch Me If You Can, and he’s gone on to make The Aviator and The Departed. I somehow doubt LaBeef will undergo a similar transformation, but if he doesn’t ruin the film I’ll be happy.

What’s so bad about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?

Once again, everything. I watched it last night, and I have come up with this formula; Temple of Doom is inversely as good as how long ago you saw either other Indiana Jones movie. For us math-challenged types, that means never see this movie back to back, or a day after, or a week after Raiders of the Lost Ark. I became a Temple of Doom Apologist shortly after the The Indiana Jones Trilogy DVD Box Set came out. I watched all three of them after not seeing them for ages. I’ve seen them all in the theater, from age 10 onward, but sporadically since; I think we wore out our VHS copy of Raiders by slow-moing the end where the Nazis melt and explode.

The first horror we encounter is Kate Capshaw.

I remember watching Temple of Doom and liking it a lot more than I thought. I must have watched it at least a week after Raiders, because this time with only a day since I saw that classic, the first sequel really falls short. It’s been the red-headed stepchild of the Indy movies, and deservedly so. From the opening frame, we’re seeing something very different from the movie we loved just a few years before.

Indiana Bond

The familiar Paramount logo fades and reveals a bronze relief of a mountain, on a gong being rung. We pan to the mouth of a dragon, glowing red and shrouded in mist… something emerges, and it’s… Kate Capshaw. PRANKED! Unfortunately the entire movie goes on like this. We get a long Busby Berkeley opening act as she dances and sings “Anything Goes” in half Chinese, in a Shanghai nightclub. When we first meet Indy, he’s not in his familiar crusty gear or even in a modest professor’s garb, but a white tuxedo, like James Bond.

The second horror is a screeching pygmy named Short Round

He’s there to make a deal with a gangster named Lao Che, and they double cross each other, leading to a decent set piece where they scrabble for a diamond and some antidote on the dance floor, to gunfire, flaming skewers and other shenanigans. They escape with nothing but the antidote, falling into a rather swanky convertible driven by Short Round, a Shanghai street kid Indy took under his wing. For some reason the bad guys chase them, to a plane, where once again Indy gets cocky and heckles Lao Che as they escape, only to reveal that it’s the bad guy’s plane.

Welcome to Fantasy Island

The pilots take a breather and they escape the plane in one of the film’s better action sequences, though it’s so ridiculous compared to the stunt-grounded action from the first movie that we know we’re in for a kid movie. The problem is that it’s a kid movie too dark for kids, and too silly for adults. Part of what made Raiders so good was that it was not for kids; we sure loved it, but they didn’t cater to us one bit. Hell, they poison a cute little monkey in it. Though he deserved it, he sig heiled once.

About as realistic as Howard the Duck

The hardest part about reviewing this movie is deciding who’s more annoying, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan from The Goonies) or Kate Capshaw (from Steven Spielberg’s casting couch). Sorry Kate, you’re no Karen Allen; though to your favor, I’m not sure anyone could have done better with the horribly written part. It needed a Kate Hepburn type with some spunk, but instead we got a scream queen. Most of the movie is either Short Round or Willie shrieking at something or other, and it’s pretty tedious almost immediately.

In the 80’s the greatest horror was poor brown people

As a prequel, we’re puzzled; why is Indy a sleazy adventurer instead of grubby professor? Wouldn’t we rather see how he pissed off Marion, met Sallah, and so on? (Another example of Lucas screwing up a prequel). You don’t need Nazis and Biblical artifacts to make a good Indy movie, though the 4th one may disprove my theory. I enjoyed the “mysterious India” movies like Gunga Din, which also dealt with a secret uprising of the Thuggee cult. It was a good story, but where did it go wrong? Let’s start with who wrote the screenplay, the same people who brought us such runny turds as Howard the Duck and Best Defense, two of the biggest flops of the 80’s. Raiders was scripted by Lawrence Kasdan, and while he may have adapted Dreamcatcher, he has so many classics under his belt that his ball sack should be gold-plated and made into an honorary Academy Award.

Ha, ha. Foreign people eat weird.

The real story begins in an Indian village where the people are starving, because their magic stone was stolen. And also all their kids were taken. It’s a little confusing there. Indy being the hero he is, goes to find them, visiting the new Maharajah in the once-abandoned castle nearby, who is supposed to be behind it all. Instead of giving us one breakneck-paced action scene after another, we get slapstick gross-out scenes in sequence. Vampire bats and jungle antics; a dinner of eels, monkey brains, beetles, and eyeball soup; and finally a cave full of crunchy creepy crawly critters. It’s just not the same. The first movie had lots of humor amidst the violence, but here the balance is way off.

A laurel and hearty handshake

The castle’s dark secret is that it houses the newly arisen Cult of Thuggee, who instead of strangling travelers are now involved in child slavery, working them in a mine beneath the castle that also features a sacrificial lava pit that would be more at home in South America. They are lead by Mola Ram, a worthy enough villain, who has the child Maharajah under his spell. The spell comes in Kool-Aid form, and of course Indy is forced to drink it, and becomes a bad guy for a few minutes. He even beats up Short Round and tries to kill Willie, predicting the audience reaction to these new characters.

The real hero is Evil Indy, who might have saved us from his co-stars.

Much has been said of the movie being “too dark,” because of the infamous scene where Mola Ram tears out a man’s heart with his bare hand, and holds the still-beating ticker up for all to see. It inspired the PG-13 rating, which has ruined many a good movie. I have no problem with the violence in the movie, as its predecessor had pets poisoned, and pugilists pole-axed by propellers. The problem really is that it’s too mawkish and silly. What’s more of a heart-string yanker than kids enslaved? Wasn’t it bad enough that the Cult had spread famine across the land? The real cult of hidden stranglers was scary enough; making them slavers is like trying to make the Nazis worse by saying “yeah, they did all genocide stuff, but they also kicked puppies.”

Head puppy kicker for the Thuggee cultists

Short Round has his own little adventure in trying to save Indy and beat up the Maharajah Kid, who has a Voodoo doll for some reason. Apparently the bad guys in this are Thuggee Voodoo Aztecs. Reminds me of Samurai Cat vs. the Nazi Werewolf T.Rex in those nerdy books of yore. The movie is only saved by the action sequences, which also fall short by relying on visual effects instead of the stunts that made the first one so thrilling. From the scene where the plane crashes into the mountain, you can tell that …. the plane has crashed into the mountain, Lebowski!

Ancient Hindu Voodoo Vindaloo

It looks incredibly fake, vs. the flying wing exploding in Raiders, which looked real, because it WAS. The mine cart ride plays out more like an amusement ride than a sequence, but it’s still exciting; it just doesn’t look real. When the water rushes down the tunnels, it looks as good as it did in the pulp movies this elegizes. And finally, the great Mexican stand-off on the rope bridge is thrilling, but damn do the falling guys look like obvious visual effects. Just throw dummies next time!

The movie does have several nuggets of pure awesome, mind you.

The final insult is a the lesson it pushes on us; Indy says he wants fame and glory, and Willie of all people, the material girl, suddenly is the moral compass. The movie tried to make our hero into a sleazy merchant in antiquities, shamed by the poverty of the third world into becoming the guy who wants everything in a museum. Thankfully the third ignores all this and rewrites his origin. It’s one of the best things about Last Crusade. I wonder if Short Round will get even a nod in the 4th movie; I can imagine him growing up to be Stephen Chow. If they ever make a 5th movie, which is incredibly unlikely, maybe he can beat up Shia LeBoeuf and do us a favor.

Publish PostDr. Jones, this is a lingam, a holy penis object. And you touched it.
You have caught the gay.

What’s so great about Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Everything! I just watched it again last night in prep for the Indiana Jones nerdathon that will accompany the release of the 4th movie, Indiana Jones and the Worst Title Since Phantom Menace, this Thursday. And it’s just as thrilling and enjoyable as when I first saw it as an 11-year old goober on the edge of my seat.

Tennessee Williams

Besides being one of the best action-adventure movies ever made, with one set piece after another, getting topped each time, it’s also got great slapstick comedy and introduced one of film’s enduring characters. That’s right, Karen Allen.

She cost my mom a lot of Kleenex in 1981

Sure, she’d been in that legendary college film Animal House, and that nostalgic memoir of early 60’s city life The Wanderers, but she’ll always be immortalized as the feisty Marion Ravenscroft, daughter of Indiana Jones’s mentor. Abner Ravenscroft, if you forgot, was the original seeker of the Ark of the Covenant and the archaeologist who found the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, instrumental in locating the lost Ark. We never find out how he died, but I imagine that creepy Nazi guy, Toht, whose name I know only because it was on the action figure package, tortured him to death with that funky coat hanger he had.

Another lost toy to re-buy on ebay

Oddly enough that joke was snatched from a James Bond movie, but it works so well that we allow Lucas and Spielberg the discretion. Unlike Temple of Doom, where we see Indy in a white tux bargaining with Chinese gangsters and wonder where the hell his fedora is. I’ll get to that tomorrow; I was a Temple of Doom apologist for a while, and I still think it’s a good movie; it’s just “the worst” in a great bunch. And hopefully it will remain at the bottom, come Thursday.

Major Toht models a Hugo Boss trench, $2430

Raiders works so well partly because there is very little exposition, except when necessary. We see a man with a whip, a gun and a hat guided into a cave; he bypasses some traps with aplomb, gets cocky, and then the real fun starts as he stumbles through them all at breakneck speed to get out of the collapsing ruins, with each trap getting exponentially worse. Alfred Molina, probably best known now as Doc Oc from Spider-Man 2, played the funny-looking guide who utters the immortal line, “toss me the idol, I throw you the whip!” and it’s amusing now to watch him, but he was perfectly cast.

I love his goofy expression.

We meet the villain soon after, with no introduction; the dialogue deftly speaks of the past between the two men and how their morals differ. Then we’re back at Marshall college, where Indy is Dr. Jones, the professor whom girls swoon over and boys admire. No time is wasted; we meet Brody, played by Denholm Elliot, who will be sorely missed from the new movie; he died of AIDS a few years after Last Crusade. He did a wonderful comic turn in that movie, but in Raiders he’s the straight man (no pun intended) and great as always.

How’d you like to polish my apple?

Government men arrive to advance the plot- something about Nazis seeking Biblical artifacts- and Indy is off to meet the plucky Marion, seeking the medallion her father discovered. She’s introduced in the middle of a drinking contest, that she wins handily; she runs a ramshackle tavern in Nepal for sherpas, a fitting place for a pulp adventure. They both lie to each other and only get thrown together when the nefarious Nazi Toht shows up. What perfect casting there- Brit Ronald Lacey looked like a mishmash of every Japanese and German monster in the Allied propaganda posters had a redheaded stepchild and beat them with a creepy stick night and day. He steals every scene he’s in and sells it back to us. They shoot up the bar in a brutal and bloody gunfight with men on fire, bright red fake blood spurting from people’s heads, and guns that change from revolvers to Colt .45’s from one shot to another, but it’s so much fun we don’t even care.

Tomboy hotness defined.

From there it’s off to Cairo where we meet another great stock character, Sallah the digger and fixer, played so charmingly by John Rhys-Davies. The film is so full of memorable scenes that I have to skip them; you know them already, or if not, you should go see them for yourself! We get a famous chase and fight through a bazaar, where we learn you don’t bring a sword to a gunfight, and soon they’re sneaking amongst the Nazis in the ruins to find that Ark in the title.

Asps. Very dangerous. Indy, you go first…

But name another movie whose set pieces come so perfectly paced. An escape from a tomb full of snakes; a bare-knuckle brawl with a Max Schmeling clone underneath a runaway flying wing and a tanker truck ready to explode; a chase up to, into, under and over an Army truck in a caravan, then onto a submarine to a deserted island. It’s hard to believe it’s all in one movie, when you think back on it. Other movies often try to cram so much in, but it rarely works. Casino Royale is the most recent one in memory.

Freudianly, she fights off snakes

And Lucas and Spielberg manage to cap it all with an incredible ending full of top-notch and still believable special effects, showing us the power of the Ark without explaining a damn thing about it. I watched the ending three times last night, sometimes in slow-motion, and it holds up to modern effects in believability. I breathed a sigh of relief when I read that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will be done mostly with stunts and traditional effects. About 30% will be CG, and Spielberg (unlike Lucas) has a good eye for when computers are necessary. It’s also being done on film and not digital; the original stunt coordinator and cinematographer are busy or retired, but the new ones studied Doug Slocombe’s work to mimic the look of the original films. That all speaks well for the new (and most likely final) entry.

Cate and Karen at Cannes with Shia Le Douche

The new movie also has … Karen Allen! She was terrific in the underrated Starman, another nerd favorite, but semi-retired to raise kids and knit sweaters in recent years. It’s good to see her in a “big” movie again. (Starman will be an 80’s movie of the week sometime soon, Jenny Hayden). She was at Cannes when the movie premiered this week, looking as feisty as ever. Alongside another fave actress of mine, Cate Blanchett, who plays the Ninotchka-esque Soviet villain. Firecracker may get jealous when we go see it Thursday…

Sexy Soviet

Raiders’ final shot of the huge warehouse full of who-knows-what is one of the most famous endings in film history. How can you top something like that? The other sequels certainly didn’t. I don’t think this one will either, but I imagine it will be a heartfelt and satisfying capper to one of the most beloved series in cinema. When I read that they had 5 films planned, part of me wishes I could go back to the 90’s and smack Spielberg and Lucas around. Did Jurassic Park need a sequel?

Everybody! Do the the Electric Nazi!

Then again that was Spielberg’s sappiest era, when he was putting walkie talkies in E.T., and Lucas was dreaming up the cheese-fest of the prequels. Maybe they weren’t ready to make another Indy movie then; I hope they are now, because if Indiana Jones and the Unwieldy Title is more Temple of Doom than Raiders, I will transform into The Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons and cry out “from hell’s heart I stab at thee!” from my seat before I shuffle out of the theater muttering every profanity imaginable.

“Did you see Shia Le Beef in Transformers?”
“Aghgghhghg yes!”

Here’s hoping Shia LaBeouf tones it down a bit for Indy 4… I bet Mr. Ford would’ve smacked the shit out of him otherwise.

The Last Starfighter and Harrison Ford among the Amish

The Last Starfighter (1984) directed by Nick Castle. 3 of 4

Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.

I was reading some discussion of The King of Kong, when I remembered one of my favorite movies about video games. My enjoyment is shrouded with nostalgia, since I saw this when growing up, and we all wanted a video game to transport us to a fantasy universe where we were the hero. This movie succeeds (and only barely) because it is tongue in cheek, and run as light comedy first and action second.

Lance Guest, a sort of low-rent Judge Rheinhold, plays Alex, a teenager working as a maintenance man at the Star-Lite, Star-Brite trailer park in the middle of nowhere. Like any teen movie set in podunk-ville, one of the first phrases out of Alex’s mouth is how he is going to leave town and be somebody. How little he knew…

Like many of us did in the 80’s, when Alex isn’t working or trying to get to the make-out spot with his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), he’s planted in front of an arcade game working out his frustrations, eager to beat his top score. One night after missing out on a trip to the lake with his lady, he manages to roll over the machine (breaking one million, for those not used to games with numeric scores). The whole trailer park has gathered around him at this point, vicariously living through Alex’s minor triumph. It made me nostalgic for the times when people like Billy Mitchell made TV and the papers for doing this sort of thing, and the films would make a fine double feature.

Later that night Alex meets a strange man named Centauri, played by Robert Preston (The Music Man) who claims to be the game designer. He’s amazed by Alex’s prowess with the game and lures him into his car for a surprise. Even in the 80’s we knew better, but this is a really cool car, a star-car, so you can forgive Alex this lapse of judgment. Soon they are taking off to a far-away planet, where Alex learns that the video game is a recruiting tool for fighter pilots in the war against Xur (Norman Snow) and the Ko-dan Armada.

He has second thoughts, but it wouldn’t be much of a movie if Alex just went home to fix TV antennas on double-wides. So it’s safe to tell you that he indeed fights the armada against incredible odds, and I dare say he may even defeat them, but that’s for you to find out. Either way, he meets his navigator Grig, a scaly but amiable fellow played by Dan O’Herlihy. With an infectious, hiss-like laugh and good nature, he’s Alex’s guide on their last-ditch attempt to save the Frontier from the betrayal of Xur and the onslaught of their space fleet. He holds the film together, giving us comic relief and exposition without being as obvious as let’s say, C3PO. Nothing against the copper-jacketed know-it-all, but you know what I mean.

You can’t see The Last Starfighter without recognizing how similar it is in some scenes to bigger movies, like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Alien. When the Rylan leader describes the Armada, there’s a spinning globe that looks a lot like, a Death Star. Alex’s disappearance from home is covered by a “beta unit,” or clone robot that takes his place, but has to deal with an “interstellar hitbeast” known as a Zandozan, eerily reminiscent of a fleshy Giger Alien, shooting up the trailer park. The fact that the movie plays it for laughs helps a lot, and that it’s not trying to establish a franchise, and riffs off of ones dear to our hearts, that makes it so endearing.

At the time, the special effects were groundbreaking, and many of us went to see it just to see them. They don’t stand up so well today, now that even a Sci-Fi Channel movie can do better (though they usually don’t bother). They’re not especially jarring, because the filmmakers were smart not to mix CG and models too much. When Centauri’s star-car suddenly changes from a DeLorean-esque prop to CG, we notice. It’s too clean. But when we see the hangar full of Gunstar fighters, they look pretty real, especially for 1984. The space battles look pretty good, and they were wise to make the arcade game graphics look worse than they could have been, so the real thing looks a lot better. The huge explosions are not CG, so they clash with the spaceships sometimes. It’s not laughable, but you definitely know this isn’t a modern movie. Because nostalgia is its biggest draw, the effects shouldn’t be an issue.

The movie is better than a derivative space adventure has any right to be. The trailer park denizens are something out of a musical, thankfully without show tunes. The first scene, of a bloodhound sleeping on a park bench, immediately tells us nothing happens in this town. Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy uplift the film from what could have been a formulaic exercise into an endearing piece of comedy. Preston’s Centauri is played straight, as an interstellar huckster trying to shanghai recruits into the starfleet, and while it’s not a big jump from his famous role as the salesman fleecing River City, he can say things about communo-crystals and Galloca saving the Ooloos without us doubting his sincerity. Dan O’Herlihy’s performance is pretty amazing, considering that a year later he’s “The Old Man” in the Robocop films, a completely different sort of role.

It may not be a great movie, but it’s heart makes it a good one, and one of the more memorable films of the mid-80’s. Amusingly enough the star-car came before the Back to the Future DeLorean, and Grig looks a lot like the Dracs from Enemy Mine, a year later. Who’s derivative now?

Witness (1985) directed by Peter Weir. 4 of 4.

This was a movie I never managed to see in its entirety, despite its popularity on cable in the last 22 years. In fact, I finally caught it on the old DVR, and the recording messed up at a critical point, so I threw it in the NetFlix queue. The DVD is a little soft but still looks good.

I’ve always liked Peter Weir. Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of my favorite films, for its quiet contemplative shots to its lack of explanation. This movie is more of a Hollywood plot, but handled by Weir it works terrifically well. We begin in an Amish community where a widow and her boy are planning to visit the big city. The camera lingers on the people and we sense their close-knit relationships. Soon after arriving at the train station, the boy is sole witness to a murder.
At the police station, detective Harrison Ford works with them to identify the killer, who turns out to be more dangerous than first expected. He ends up hiding out in the Amish village to protect the witness and himself.

This is one of Ford’s better roles. It’s similar to his Deckard in Blade Runner a few years earlier, but has more of the hard-bitten Philly cop without any of Deckard’s humor. He slowly meshes into the Amish society and we get a good look at the pleasant side of it. I recommend finding the documentary The Devil’s Playground about the practice of Rumsprigga, when youths can be unfettered of the rules for a while to decide whether they want to commit to the Amish life, for a closer look. There’s the famous barn-raising scene, and Ford gets to milk a cow. The country style ribald humor of the Amish is there to humanize them. Their pacifism is exemplified, for it separates the gun-toting cop from them. Soon he is fitting in, and then the trouble finally finds him.

For a quiet film, the end fight is quite thrilling. Ford is unarmed, and he’s got 3 men with shotguns to deal with. We’ve seen this before and it’s never very believable. Guns jam, and so on. Not so here. He has to dispatch them using his brains, and he’s up to the task. The ending is quite satisfying, not giving us the typical Hollywood revenge rush.

There’s also a muted love story here, and it’s to Weir’s credit that it doesn’t interfere with the rest of the movie. The movie holds up well all these years later and really hasn’t become an anachronism like the Amish themselves. It’s still quietly gripping, and worth seeing.