Indiana Jones (Franchise Review)

STILL CRACKING THE WHIP

While not quite dominating the worldwide headlines in the same all-conquering fashion his fellow Disney/Lucasfilm bedfellow achieved with similar news three years ago, yesterday’s announcement that the world’s most famous archaeologist was adorning his iconic fedora for a long-awaited fifth big screen bow in 2019 – with original star and director back on board – was still warmly received online, with social media abuzz in anticipation. In honour of this epic official confirmation from the Mouse’s mouth, I have dug up (sorry) Doctor Jones’ previous four cinema adventures for a marathon re-watch…


RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
PG – 115mins – 1981

Say hello to part-time school teacher and famed archaeologist Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison “Han Solo” Ford) as he sets out on an intrepid quest to hunt down the ancient artefact known as the Staff of Ra and journey to the Egyptian city of Tanis to locate the Well of Souls and find within the mysterious Ark of the Covenant (the biblical chest built, so the Good Book says, to house the fragments of the Ten Commandments) before a band of wily occult-obsessed Nazi’s do.

Raiders is a colourful and thrilling non-stop thrill-ride of a B-movie soundtracked by a spirited John Williams score; Indy is James Bond with a bullwhip and fedora. Teaming up with his reluctant ex, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), our globe-trotting all-action hero dodges swords, snakes and all manner of booby traps in pursuit of the ultimate treasure.

The violence is surprisingly intense for a family film (I still can’t believe it’s only rated PG!) and there is plenty of blood splattering the exotic scenery, but the stand out scene undoubtedly is the final reveal of what lies within the golden relic – it’s face-meltingly, eye-poppingly awesome!

CR@B Verdict: 5 stars


INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM
PG – 118mins – 1984


The black sheep of the original trilogy, this sophomore effort is in actually a prequel, so to ditch the Nazi’s as antagonists and avoid explaining Marion’s absence. It is 1935 and escaping a bloodbath in Shanghai’s Club Obi-Wan (wink, wink), Indy – accompanied by diminutive sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and nightclub warbler Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) – crash lands in the Himalayas where a local Indian tribe believe he has been sent by the Hindu god Shiva to retrieve their stolen Sankara stone and locate their missing children.

Like with The Empire Strikes Back, creator and story-crafter George Lucas wished to go darker with part two – hence the black magic, child cruelty and human sacrifices – but director Steven Spielberg resisted, which perhaps explains Temple‘s rather schizophrenic nature; the first half (replete with opening musical number “Anything Goes”) is chock full of gags and general silliness (not to mention a leading lady who seems to do nothing but shriek) that often borders on farcical. It is only in the grimmer second half – during a literal descent into the underworld – that the film feels more comfortable (and by proxy, stronger).

Finally, the high-speed mine cart race is still as iconic as ever and a whole heap of fun.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars


INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
PG – 127mins – 1989

Under Spielberg’s insistence, Indy regained his tonal balance for this “last” crusade, but there is still much fun to be had in this cracking yarn without relying on cheap laughs like Temple was often guilty of.

Playing with the chronology once more, we kick things off in 1911 to witness young Indy’s (River Phoenix) fledging taste for adventure (and the development of his crippling snake phobia) before we fast forward to 1938. The Nazi’s are back, and so too are Indy’s trusted cohorts Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davis) from Raiders (though still no Marion).

Crusade proves to be a real family affair as Indy sets out to rescues his kidnapped father (Sean Connery) and together they track down the fabled Holy Grail. The strained father-son relationship between “Junior” and gruff-but-lovable Scot Connery zings with loaded banter while the action is more comic book than Raiders‘ brutality and Temple‘s barbarism, but there’s no less of it. A fine (temporary) finale to the expansive franchise.

CR@B Verdict: 5 stars


INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
12 – 122mins – 2008

19 years after Dr Jones’ last cinematic outing, this belated sequel acknowledges leading man Harrison Ford’s wrinkles by setting the action in the late 1950s. Appropriately, Crystal Skull is an ode to the rickety sci-fi B-movies of the period, with Indy in a race against time to beat a faction of Soviet agents (led by Cate Blanchett’s wobbly-accented Irina Spalko) to find and return the eponymous MacGuffin to the mythical city of Akator, where it is long believed the returnee will be granted unnamed supernatural treasures.

When I first saw this film in cinema’s upon release, I – like many others – baulked at the heavy science fiction elements, in particular the less-than-subtle FX-heavy climax. I have seen it three times since, and must say that this most recent viewing – in the company of the other instalments in the series – was the most rewarding. That’s not to say that it can’t be enjoyed as a stand-alone feature, but how can you grumble about “inter-dimensional beings” being too far-fetched when we’ve seen biblical ghosts unleashing the wrath of God and immortal warriors guarding hidden treasure troves and accepted them?

That’s not to say Crystal Skull isn’t without its flaws; it’s by no means the best of the series by a long shot, but it isn’t the legacy-defacing disgrace that many die-hard fans have labelled it. The clumsy Tarzan tribute and car-top sword fight do suffer somewhat from so obviously being filmed against green screen, but this is otherwise a fine return for the ageing archaeologist with a witty script and a good dynamic between Indy, the cock-sure Mutt Williams (Shia LeBouef) and a certain “Mary Williams”.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars


BACK TO THE FEDORA

Will Lucas’ 2012 retirement from blockbuster filmmaking see him sit out the forthcoming fifth instalment like he did The Force Awakens, or will he dip his toe back into the storytelling pool to reunite the Holy-wood Trinity alongside pals Spielberg and Ford once more? Either way, I’m excited for Indy – veteran or not – roll on 2019!

Goosebumps (Cinema Review)

<p>Dylan Minnette, Jack Black, Odeya Rush and&nbsp;Ryan Lee star in <em>Goosebumps,&nbsp;</em>based on the books by R.L. Stine,<span style="font-family: proxima-nova-n4, proxima-nova, 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 28px;">&nbsp;the story of how the monsters from his books escape into the world, wreak havoc, and the attempts that are made to get them back onto the pages where they belong.</span></p>
PG – 103mins – 2015


FROM PAGE TO SCREAM

As a child of the 80s schooled through the 90s, R.L. Stine’s seemingly endless library of short, sharp supernatural stories for young audiences made for regular bedtime reading. Titles such as Say Cheese And Die! and Stay Out of the Basement were often swapped between myself and my classmates so to maximise our consumption because owning them ALL was surely impossible.

Published by Scholastic, Goosebumps books are the perfect concoction of creepy adventures with a cool, rebel streak but a moral core – not to mention a fittingly ghoulish twist – to encourage even the most book-adverse scamp to pick up a copy. Likewise, the accompanying anthology TV series was must-watch after school viewing on CBBC from 1995-8 which I happily revisited and binged on gluttonously when the boxset received a belated region 2 release a couple of years ago.

For these reasons, when I first heard a big screen adaptation/spin-off/reboot was in the works, my gut reaction was an amalgam of nostalgic delight and cautious pessimism – the latter exacerbated when it was revealed that R. L. Stine was to somehow appear as a main character played by funnyman Jack Black (Bad Bromance), who was reteaming with director Rob Letterman, of the deplorable Gulliver’s Travels (2010) ‘fame’.

Having now – eventually – seen the Goosebumps motion picture (which was already out on DVD in America before it hit UK cinemas last month), I am relieved to inform you that Letterman and Black have not desecrated another literary source. Phew. The script – by Darren Lemke, from a story by Scott Anderson and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, 1408) – does a fine job of crafting a meta-skirting universe where Stine is a bestselling author who must lock away his manuscripts to stop his monstrous creations from escaping into the real world.

Escape, of course, they do, spilling out a horde of nefarious gnomes, giant insects, crazed clowns, hungry werewolves and marauding zombies onto the quiet streets of Madison, Delaware, with deranged ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Black) pulling the strings in a plot to ruin his imprisoning “Papa”. It’s like a “Who’s Who and From Which Book?” from Goosebumps’ illustrious back catalogue, and while some popular characters are given short shrift, this self-aware ensemble narrative is definitely the best approach to delivering an uproarious and fan-servicing one-off adventure.

Dylan Minnette and Ryan Lee play the teenage every-lads whisked along on this wild ride, with Lee’s dumbfounded expression and verbal diarrhoea regularly infuriating Black’s cantankerous and reclusive writer, while Minnette has his sight set on wooing Stine’s home schooled daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush) – but is there more to her than meets the eye…? Well there had to be twist!

Not every joke lands. One particularly awkward and wholly un-kid friendly line has an inexperienced cop wildly misinterpret Stine’s ‘confession’ of being an audiophile, but there’s a lot of witty parent-pleasing stuff elsewhere (Stine’s rage at Stephen King’s success is a highlight), plus the zippy nature of the busy narrative means you don’t dwell on the missteps for long before you’re distracted by another vivid and impressive set-piece.

Younger children may be genuinely spooked by some of the grislier creature effects. The zombies roaming the graveyard – which the characters jokingly remark they just have to walk through to reach their destination – were certainly lacking any horror-softening humour, but this is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable family friendly romp profuse in magic, charm and self-aware spirit. Viewer prepare, you’re in for a… treat!

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

Dark Places (DVD Review)


15 – 108mins – 2015


KAN OF WORMS

Charlize Theron heads up a thoroughly sullen cast who all play world weary compassion-vacuums in this competently plotted but grim miscarriage of justice thriller – which left any thrills behind on the page. Adapted from Gillian Gone Girl Flynn’s bestselling 2009 novel, it is telling that this lesser film was shot before but quietly slipped out after David Fincher’s superior conversion lit up the silver screen two years ago.

Having witnessed – and been the sole survivor of – a home invasion which saw her mother and sisters brutally murdered in 1985, Kansas City dweller Libby Day (Theron) has grown into a jittery and jaded mess of an adult. It was her questionable testimony at just 8 years old which saw her older brother (Corey Stoll) imprisoned for the crime, but now a group of true-crime enthusiasts are dredging up the past in an attempt to overturn what they consider a wrongful verdict, causing Libby to re-evaluate her memories of that tragic night.

Flitting between then and now as light is shone upon the infamous case by Nicholas Hoult’s investigative nosey parkers “The Kill Club”, it is instantly obvious that Libby’s brother is not the murderer – not that the responsively-ambiguous teenage rebel (played by Tye Sheridan in flashbacks) does much to help clear his name (or garner sympathy) as some truly disturbing charges are levelled at him.

This lack of energy is common throughout the cast, as Christina Hendricks barely registers any of the horrors that surround her as the Day’s floundering matriarch. Theron, meanwhile, plays haunted Libby as a solemn cow quick to snap. You understand why she is how she is, but it is hard to like someone who refuses to let anyone get within five paces.

As the title suggests, Dark Places is pitch black in both subject matter and tone. Slaughter, criminal injustice, teenage pregnancy, broken families, child abuse, drug addicts and Satanism are not the cheeriest of subjects in their own right, but when compounded into a slow-reveal mystery narrative, the bleakness and lack of pace do not do each other any favours. As the not-substantial runtime ticked by, I found myself all the more often checking the time and begging for a ray of light to brighten this uncomfortable and morbid affair.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Grimsby (Cinema Review)


15 – 83mins – 2016


JAMES POND-SCUM

While his earliest and most famous alter ego – privileged suburban “rude boy” Ali G – also satirised the less distinguished subsects of modern British culture, at least Sacha Baron Cohen’s voice of da yoof was a subversive stereotype, cleverly used to embarrass the disillusioned middle class fools he chose to interview, starting with The 11 O’Clock Show from 1998-2000.

Over a decade and a half – and four wildly diverse personas of varying success – later, and Baron Cohen has once again turned his focus to the council house-lined estates of Benefit Street Britain with lager loving football hooligan Norman “Nobby” Butcher in action-comedy Grimsby (which was granted the wittier and more inventive title The Brothers Grimsby Stateside).

Except… gone is the self-aware parody underlying Ali G’s brashness. Gone, too, is the cheeky naivety which forgave Borat his cultural faux pas, leaving Nobby as a disgusting, crass, thoughtless yob who embraces loutishness and is blind to the foulness of the pit in which he and his largely extended family dwell. Why? Just because.

I can’t even give Grimsby some slack for its humour, because it is completely devoid of that, instead choosing truly hideous bad taste yuks (Daniel Radcliffe could sue!) over any form of sensitivity as family-proud Nobby tracks down his long-lost brother (Mark Strong) and tags along on his globe trotting top secret MI6 mission which culminates in a horrendously contrived showdown at the 2016 World Cup Finals’ firework finale.

No subject is sacred as AIDS, celebrities, child abuse, elephant penises, gay sex, obesity and the residents of the eponymous Lincolnshire fishing town are mined for some horribly unsubtle and misplaced “jokes”. On more than one occasion I considered storming out in disgust, only placated by the thankfully brisk running time (and the fact I was biding time before The Forest began).

What makes all of this all the more painful and unacceptable is the talent both on and off the screen! Isla Fisher scrapes a pass for being married to the lead actor, while UK small screen stars Johnny Vegas and Ricky Tomlinson can be forgiven for taking a theatrical gig – but what is Penélope Cruz, Mark Strong, Ian McShane and Rebel Wilson’s excuse for signing on for this foul, base dreck?!!

Director Louis LeTerrier was behind the lens of the popular Transporter films (minus last year’s Refuelled) and the frankly fabulous Now You See Me, while one of Baron Cohen’s two co-writers, Peter Baynham, has collaborated on such point-perfect comedic highlights as Alan Partridge, The Day Today and Brass Eye how could so much talent combine to make this atrociously diabolical insult to the genre??!

CR@B Verdict: 1 star

Gemma Bovery (DVD Review)


15 – 99 mins – 2014


LIFE IMITATES ART IMITATES ART

“A mundane story told by a genius.”

Adapted by author Posy Simmonds from her own 1999 graphic novel, this quaint-yet-quirky French romance is a quasi-meta modernised riff on author Gustave Flaubert’s controversial nineteenth century novel about the archetypal bored wife who becomes entangled in adulterous affairs to escape her provincial life.

“It seems really wacky,” real world English rose Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton) comments of the book to her romantic literature-loving new neighbour Martin (Fabrice Luchini), a Normandy baker who acts as omniscient “director” of this parallel tale, while also starring in it.

Moulding the action like he does his dough, Martin guides the audience like a sentient GCSE revision guide by pointing out the similarities between Madame Bovary and the relationship calamities of her expatriate almost-namesake. Martin is a meddler-come-voyeur, often reduced to a wide-eyed, infatuated fug while Gemma’s husband (Jason Flemyng), a local playboy (Niels Schneider) and her ex (Mel Raido) vie for her attention.

I am struggling to ascertain whether I consider this cleverly post-modern, or simply lazy, with plot points from the original novel being lifted wholesale (rat poison, faked love letters) into this present day love triangle. The book’s tragic finale, for instance, when broached sternly in the film’s third act, comes across as wholly contrived and easily avoidable, yet events still transpire as if this is in someway fate – which is just romanticised nonsense, and the way it plays out on screen nothing short of goofy.

“Nothing happens, but at the same time it’s interesting”

Sadly, in assessing Gemma Bovery, I cannot agree with the lead character’s review of Flaubert’s classic. Frustrating, yes, mildly-diverting, certainly, but not interesting. Like its portrayal of manipulator-or-victim Gemma and its continual bilingual flitting between English and French, Anne Coco Before Chanel Fontaine’s film is a muddled mess which can’t quite decide what it is.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Cedar Rapids (DVD Review)

15 – 86mins – 2011


RAPID DECLINE

Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but I was expecting far more from indie comedy Cedar Rapids . From the director of Jennifer Aniston’s The Good Girl and produced by Alexander Sideways Payne, I knew to expect drama, character friction and insecurity along with the laughs, but I found myself more frustrated than enamoured by the highly-strung characters.

The Hangover’s Ed Helms plays sheltered and naïve straight-living insurance salesman Tim Lippe, a man who had a big future ahead of him before he squandered it away in the sleepy little town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin. His sad, stalled existence going nowhere, Tim reluctantly accepts a chance at the “big time”: to represent BrownStar Insurance at an annual insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and hopefully bring home the company’s third Two Diamond Award in a row.

The small, clueless fish in a big modern pond template has been used before, but I struggled to engage with frigid Tim. Nice and polite though he may be, everything about him screamed “square” and I failed to accept that unconventional conference veterans like vulgar loudmouth poacher Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) or innuendo-slinger Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) could so instantly befriend such a dull, pitiful man.

Although it’s slightly more believable that hotel hooker Bree (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) – desperate to escape her less-than-favourable occupation as she is – may gravitate towards Tim’s more grounded and sterile nature, the fact that he was so easily persuaded to attend a nefarious house party, smoke weed and get high on crystal meth seemed completely out of character. Would it not have been nobler of Tim to stand by his morals and refuse the drugs rather than find fun and freedom through illegal means? What sort of skewed message is that?!

Maybe I’m looking too deeply into all this, but Tim also far-too readily jumps into bed with lonely-but-married serial-shagger Joan, despite being beyond-obsessed with his “pre-engaged” partner back in Wisconsin (astutely played by no-nonsense Sigourney Weaver). One night he walks off offended because Joan dares to jokingly slap his arse, the next he tells her how milky her skin is while skinny dipping in the hotel pool before going back to her place to make love. Sure, he was drunk, and yes, he regrets it the next morning, but it felt like his character didn’t stay true to himself for the good of plot progression.

By the end credits, Tim comes good by plucking up the confidence to publicly “out” the bribe-taking “honourable” conference chairman Orin Helgesson (Smith), before taking steps to stand on his own two feet for once in the big, wide world, but whereas Sideways and other hero-to-zero comedies like Napoleon Dynamite had me in stitches, Cedar Rapids’ corruption of a vulnerable soul just left me embarrassed to the point of depressed – and surely that wasn’t its intention?

In a CR@B Shell: A pathetic loser has his eyes opened to twenty-first century living by having an affair, bribing his way to success and getting into a fight while off his ass on hard drugs at a house party with a prostitute – and we’re meant to laugh/be charmed?! Sorry, but for all its critical praise, Cedar Rapids completely failed to win be over.
2 stars

THE LIBRARIANS, 1.1 – “… And the Crown of King Arthur (TV Review)

Syfy – UK Premiere December 2014 – Season 1 DVD out now
Created by: John Titcher
Screenplay by: John Rogers
Developed and Directed by: Dean Devlin

THE DE-DEWEY CODE

In the intervening years before Falling Skies gave viewers a legitimate reason to remember him for more than the hospital gown, ER’s other dashing doc plied his actorly trade as the eponymous Flynn Carsen in a trilogy of made-for-TNT fantasy adventure romps about a seemingly unheroic but brilliantly-minded man hired to protect a range of historical and magical artefacts and store them in a secret underground section of the Metropolitan Public Library.

Moving from film to a weekly series in late 2014, the franchise added a plural to its title and expanded the format by introducing four new characters to lighten the Librarian’s load (and reduce Wyle to recurring guest star). X-Men’s Rebecca Romjin leads the new recruits as no-nonsense “Guardian” Eve Baird, a Colonel and former agent who must protect and train the new workforce. Jacob Stone (Christian Kane) is the manly labourer with a high IQ, Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth) a brilliant mathematician with superhuman memory retrieval skills, while Ezekiel Jones (John Kim) is a wiley expert thief and techno-whiz.

They make for a diverse group of personalities, even if on paper they appear to have fairly similar intelligence-based skillsets; being as they are candidates to succeed Flynn in the role of Librarian. Flynn’s reason for welcoming them into the super-secret sect is that a shadowy organisation known as the Serpent Brotherhood are bumping off potential employees, so it was a case of save or be skewered.

As the titular MacGuffin, King Arthur’s Crown is wholly surplus and redundant to the pilot’s plot, merely used to ease new viewers into the show’s Indiana Jones meets The Da Vinci Code globetrotting search ‘n’ solve structure. The mystery leads the gang to the Black Forest and is decoded in record time, before focus returns to the assassination plot and ends on a traitorous cliffhanger.

“Family friendly” is very obviously the key phrase at the forefront of director Devlin’s mind, while “grit” is blacklisted. Bookish Flynn’s impassioned outbursts and smirk-worthy quirks unashamedly channels Doctor Who’s iconic wackiness. So, too, does the fantastical humour, which – along with the gaudily lit cinematography – blunts any of the more violent action set-pieces. For instance, Flynn sharpens his swordsmanship against a seemingly invisible opponent, using the autonomous, free-swinging Excalibur – whom he calls “Cal” and sees as a friend.

The Librarians’ worst offence, however, is its heavy-handed musical score, which doesn’t so much compliment the tone of the episode but signpost it in an almost patronising manner. If the producers ever wanted to save money in the future, they could achieve exactly the same outcome by incorporating idiot boards reading THIS IS FUNNY or THIS IS DRAMATIC instead. While I appreciate the necessity of vibrance to determine the frivolous concept, it is a shame that this graceless approach diminishes the levity of the episode, resulting in a broad and amateurish atmosphere.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars