Monday, September 17, 2012

INDIANA JONES: THE COMPLETE SERIES - Blu-ray (Paramount 1981-2008) Paramount Home Video

The George Lucas brand is primarily known for two enduring film franchises; Star Wars and Indiana Jones. In more recent times the former has suffered greatly at the hands of its creator with Lucas’ inability to keep his digital play tools to himself resulting in revisions and insertions of scenes and characters that arguably have marred the impact and lasting appeal of the original three films. But the latter franchise has remained virtually unscathed by Lucas’ meddling and has now been lovingly preserved for generations to come on Blu-ray by Paramount Home Video.
Initially turned down by virtually every major studio in Hollywood, the film that introduced audiences to respected archaeologist/fortune hunter, Indiana Jones, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) has since become the quintessential homage to all serialized B-budget adventure yarns from the 1930s and 40s. In a canon of film achievements that would make virtually any director pea-green with envy, Spielberg’s Raiders is an A++ effort. The film has a timelessness more richly entertaining with each passing year, catapulting audiences into the forgotten recesses of a child’s imagination from a very adult perspective.

Initially the project was begun by George Lucas even before he had finished penning the script to Star Wars (1977). The idea for creating this fantasy/adventure set during WWII languished in Lucas' fertile imagination until he took a much needed vacation to Hawaii. Meanwhile Spielberg had purchased the rights to an unrelated screenplay by Philip Kaufman. Although this project would never reach fruition, upon being asked by Lucas to direct Raiders, Spielberg remembered how much he appreciated Kaufman’s prose and hired him to outline the story concept for this film. In the final phase, writer Lawrence Kasdan was brought in to brush up the dialogue.

The name Indiana actually belongs to Lucas’ dog – a Malamute that also served as Lucas’ inspiration for Chewbacca in Star Wars. Although Spielberg concurred with Lucas that Indiana was a fine first name, Lucas’ choice of ‘Smith’ left Spielberg cold and was eventually changed to ‘Jones’. Tom Selleck was Spielberg’s first choice to play the lead after Lucas resisted casting Harrison Ford yet again. Ford had previously appeared for Lucas in American Graffiti (1973) and then Star Wars. However, when Selleck’s CBS contract on Magnum P.I. precluded his involvement, Lucas fell back on Ford as his second choice.

England’s Elstree Studios served as the principle facility for interior shooting, with cast and crew moving to Hawaii and later Tunisia for exterior locations. In Tunisia, whole portions of the city had television antennas removed so that Spielberg could lens wider shots seen from Sallah’s (John Rhys-Davies) rooftop apartment. Spielberg would later say that the Tunisia shoot was among the most challenging in his career – buffeted by stifling heat and a virulent bout of food poisoning that leveled everyone except Spielberg who had had the good sense to import all his food from England.

Elstree Studios had been the scene of a devastating fire only a few years before – hence, in the sequence where Marion Ravenwood’s (Karen Allen) bar is burned to the ground, Spielberg made extensive personal assurances that his policy would be ‘safety first’. Flame retardant was liberally sprayed with firemen standing by, extinguishers drawn, to ensure no such disasters on this set.

We begin our adventure deep in the Mayan jungles where Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) has just recovered an ancient golden idol from a trap-infested temple. However, his harrowing conquest is diffused when rival archaeologist Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) arrives to claim the prize for his own, having charmed the natives with trinkets. Barely escaping with his life Indy returns to Oxford University. He is approached by a pair of FBI agents who express interest in his knowledge of the Ark of the Covenant; the final resting place for the tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. 

Whoever possesses the ark commands an army that cannot be defeated. Hence, Adolph Hitler’s intense fascination to possess it. Indy agrees to go in search of the ark. His first stop is a remote snowbound Tibetan village, home to his old friend, retired archaeologist Abner Ravenwood. Unfortunately, Abner has since died leaving Indy to grapple with his daughter Marion (Allen) – Ravenwood – now the sole heir of Abner’s meager estate – for access to Ravenwood’s research files.

Indy’s primary interest is in an ancient medallion with curious markings. He tries to get Marion to give him this artifact, but she remains bitter over their failed love affair and refuses him. She is next approached by Nazi Maj. Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) who is not willing to take 'no' for an answer. Thankfully for Marion, Indy hasn't gone very far. In the resulting brawl, Marion’s inn is burned to the ground and she angrily declares that Indy has just acquired a new partner on his expedition. Toht attempts to retrieve the medallion from the flames, but it burns an imprint in the palm of his hand and he is forced to flee.

Indy and Marion travel to Cairo where Indy’s old arch nemesis, Belloq has already begun excavating with information gleaned from the burned imprint on Toht's hand. But Indy has managed to recover the medallion and it is double sided.  The backside provides Indy with the precise location of the map room that will divulge secrets to the Well of Souls. Belloq learns of Indy’s excavation and entombs him and Marion in the Well’s snake-infested burial chamber after stealing the ark for his own.

After some perilous moments of panic Indy and Marion break out of the tomb and join Sallah to recover the ark.  Sallah arranges passage for Indy and Marion aboard smuggler, Katanga's (George Harris) rusty pirate ship. But the Nazis have tailed them across the sea in a U-boat and take the ark and Marion hostage to a remote island where Belloq is determined to unleash its power. Aware that to open the ark means death to all who look upon it, Indy instructs Marion to shut her eyes. Belloq, Toht and the Nazis are consumed in an unearthly firestorm of demons and lightening, a searing white shaft of ominous light parting the clouds before the ark seals itself shut.

In Washington, Indy tries to get the FBI to agree to let him study the ark. He is told by one of the bureaucrats (Bill Reimbold) that the FBI has their top men working on it. As Indy storms out of their offices, accompanied by a sympathetic Marion, we cut away to a vast warehouse in the National Archives. The ark, sealed in an unmarked crate, is being pushed by a lonely attendant into an unidentified stack inside the massive warehouse, presumably doomed to become just another forgotten relic expunged from the annals of history. 

Raiders of the Lost Ark is undeniably grand entertainment; arguably the best action/adventure yarn of its kind. Spielberg, whose forte is fantasy, weaves a rich tapestry of the macabre, combining the sacred with the profane and achieving a sort of 'religious experience' for those who choose to interpret the film in those terms.

On the heels of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) audience anticipation was high for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). That the final film emerged as a much darker, more sinister excursion into the occult and black magic of the Kali was something unexpected and rather unsettling. Even today, many a critic rates the film as inferior to its predecessor. It hasn't exactly helped matters that Spielberg publicly denounces this sequel as his least favorite in the franchise.  Raiders of the Lost Ark is undoubtedly superior in its narrative stealth, screen economy and ability to generate thrills akin to a roller coaster ride. But Temple of Doom is perhaps its phenomenally intense antithesis; an exhilarating ‘dark ride’ that careens through some very spooky territory, leaving the palms sweaty and the heart palpitating.   

As scripted by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, Temple of Doom is a much more baleful affair; a sort of Indiana Jones meets Blade Runner with stolen bits of business borrowed from unused ideas that Lucas had wanted to include in Raiders. Lucas and Spielberg have generally discounted the story by saying that its best parts are leftovers from Raiders.  But this is a mistake that undercuts the overall arch of excitement that Temple of Doom effortlessly generates. Comparisons between the Huyak/Katz’s screenplay and George Steven’s Gunga Din (1939) and Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1936) are inevitable. Yet, what emerges from Spielberg’s adventuresome milieu is a fascinating departure; an action-packed escapist nightmare with stunning matte work and miniatures that never appear as fakes. 

On this outing Indy escapes a confrontation with murderous nightclub owner Lao Che (Roy Chiao) in Hong Kong. Indy's loyal sidekick, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and whiny nightclub chanteuse, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) steal away into the night and board a plane.  One problem: the airline is owned by Lao Che. The pilots bail out in mid-air, leaving Indy, Willie and Shorty to crash in India where they soon discover that an ancient evil cult has grown all powerful once more. Sacred stones have been stolen from a village, thus plunging its inhabitants into despair.

Indy, Willie and Shorty are taken to the Maharaja's (Raj Singh) palace where they are invited to feast on a most grotesque buffet of bugs and monkey brains. Afterward, Indy questions the Maharaja about the Thugee and is assured that it is a thing of the past. However, later in his room a Thugee guard attempts to strangle Indy. Making short shrift of the guard, Indy charges into Willie's suite and discovers a secret passage that leads to underground caverns beneath the palace. 

There Indy, Willie and Shorty witness a human sacrifice at the hands of high priest, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).  The unsuspecting trio is taken prisoner by Mola Ram's guards and Indy is made to drink the blood of Kali that sends him into 'the black sleep'. Shorty is exiled to the slave camps and Willie is slated to become the next human sacrifice. But at the last possible moment, Shorty revives Indy from his hypnotic trance and together they free Willie from her chains. The trio boards a mine car, narrowly escaping a flash flood, before struggling to cross a flimsy suspension bridge that breaks apart over a croc-infested river. Mola Ram is destroyed and Indy, Shorty and Willie return to the village with the sacred stones.

Kate Capshaw (the second Mrs. Spielberg), who met her future husband on the set, gets a bad rap for her ear-piercing screeches: a running gag throughout the film. True enough, Willie Scott is no Marion Ravenwood. But personally, I’ve never found Capshaw’s performance as the self-absorbed/self-important diva anything but totally amusing comedy relief. And Capshaw proved she had more on the ball than just being cast as a figure of fun.

For Temple of Doom’s magnificent opener the actress had to learn the lyrics to Cole Porter’s immortal ‘Anything Goes’ in Mandarin. Although Capshaw was scheduled to tap as well as sing, costume designer Anthony Powell’s exquisite, but undeniably form-fitting red sequined gown prevented her from partaking. Reportedly, this sequence was filmed near the end of the shoot – a problem when it was discovered that an elephant had eaten through the beads on the back of the dress during the location shoot in Sri Lanka.

When all was said and done, promotional junkets advertised, “If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones.” Expectations for another roller coaster ride were in place. What came next was a more evenly paced descent into the haunted recesses of the human mind. Although it ultimately proved to be an even bigger grossing hit at the box office, Temple of Doom has since been unfairly criticized. Yet upon renewed viewing it remains one of the best action/adventure movies of all time - solidly crafted and expertly played with breathtaking stunt work and some truly phenomenal cinematography by Douglas Slocombe.

Despite Spielberg’s claim that the last film in the original trilogy is his personal favorite, I have never been able to entirely warm up to Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989). Part of the appeal of the character, for me at least, was that Indiana Jones was a guy’s guy – someone every man in the audience wanted to be like and every woman in the audience wanted to be with.  Introducing Sean Connery’s sage and slightly bumbling patriarch into this formula not only split the point of interest and focus of the film, but Connery’s constant referencing of our hero as ‘junior’ utterly diffused Indy’s credibility as a leading man; revealing insecurities that were not part of Indy’s original makeup and do nothing to enhance his lovability for the audience. The other great sin the Jeffrey Boam screenplay commits is its absence of a winsome heroine.

In its preliminary stages Spielberg and Lucas could not agree on a central narrative. Boam’s patchwork is thus a compromise and it seems to suffer from too many creative ideas mashed together without ever developing an overall arch in the story. Lucas initially wanted the plot to be a variation on the ‘haunted castle’ or 'dark old house' motif, culminating in a search for the Holy Grail. Neither concept particularly interested Spielberg. Instead, the director pitched an idea to Lucas of a father and son – buddy/buddy - action adventure that would eventually incorporate Lucas’ Holy Grail concept.

The pre-title sequence showcases the late River Phoenix as a young Indiana – a Boy Scout no less - acquiring both his guts and his fears (that we’ve already witnessed in the previous two adventures) in a confrontation with fortune hunters. From here we are introduced to Indy’s father, Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery) who chides his son on his spur-of-the-moment ill planning. A rift is created between father and son, moving us into the present day. 

Indiana (Harrison Ford) joins forces with Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) who has also had an affair with his dad and is actually working for the Nazis, and more directly, American fortune hunter, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover doing an utterly unconvincing American accent). Indy and Elsa’s search for the chalice Christ drank from leads them first to Italy, then Berlin, and finally, Petra. In the interim, Indy reunites with his father. Old emotional scars are opened once more. Eventually, Indy learns the truth about Elsa and also about his father’s affair with her. Donovan pursues Indy and Henry, along with Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot, inexplicably rewritten as an obtuse figure of fun on this outing) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) to Jordan where Indy is forced at gunpoint to recover the chalice in order to save Henry’s life.

Boam’s screenplay is trying too hard for its laughs. Characters like Sallah and Brody, that seemed natural and genuine in Raiders, have been transformed into garish parodies in this film.  Several glaring examples of matte painting and blue screen make the bi-plane getaway sequence aboard a Zeppelin obvious and disengaging. The Berlin sequence, where Indiana comes face to face with a bad knock off of Adolph Hitler, devolves into pure camp at the expense of suspending our disbelief.

But ‘disbelief’ is a good word for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); the woefully misguided attempt to reboot and reinvigorate the franchise almost twenty years past Harrison Ford’s prime. Scripted by David Koepp, Crystal Skull struggles to find its place, emerging as more of an anomaly within, than a continuation of, the franchise. The delay between Last Crusade and Crystal Skull was a mutual decision made by Spielberg, Lucas and Ford at the time; each feeling as though they had outgrown the series, with all desiring to pursue different projects.

Regrettably, by the time everyone agreed to a reunion times had indeed changed. Owing to the natural aging process, Ford was now forced to become the sage of the piece. The screenplay reunites Indy with his first love, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and their illegitimate son, Henry ‘Mutt’ Williams (Shia LaBeouf).  Advancing the timeline to 1957 also meant a change of villains. Gone are the Nazis, replaced by a virulent cold war enemy, Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) who wastes no time kidnapping Indy and his friend, Mac George Michale (Ray Winstone) whom she then forces to search for alien remains kept secret in a secluded warehouse somewhere in Nevada. 

Mac double-crosses Indy, who escapes and takes refuge inside a lead-lined fridge to avert radiation exposure from a nuclear explosion on a bomb test site. Later, Indy is prompted by Mutt to pursue the legend of the crystal skull in Peru after the disappearance of Professor Oxley (John Hurt). So the legend goes, anyone returning the skull to the mythic city of Akator will wield dominance over its alien powers. Mutt and Indy learn that Oxley was placed in a mental hospital, having suffered a breakdown from handling the skull, but was then kidnapped by the Soviets. Jones and Mutt are ambushed and thrown into a camp with Oxley and Marion.

After several narrow escapes, the group arrives with Spalko at an ancient temple. The aliens use a sort of mind control over their hapless human counterparts. Demanding to know everything, the aliens release Oxley from their trance and transfer the bulk of their knowledge into Spalko’s mind.  She is now their prisoner. They also activate a portal into another dimension and into which Spalko and the rest of the soviets are sucked through. Indy, Marion and Mutt escape and in the final moments decide to finally marry.

The premise for this film is so obviously geared toward transference of the franchise from Indy to his son. But the plot is a mess, made weighty, yet meaningless, by hokey vignettes slathered in a woeful amount of rather obvious CGI. One of the sheer joys of the original trilogy was its clever staging of live action; particularly its animal wrangling. In Raiders we had snakes – real ones. In Temple of Doom there was a grotesque assortment of bugs to make the skin crawl. Last Crusade has a justly celebrated sequence featuring real rats. But Crystal Skull attempts to outdo all of them with an attack of computer generated red ants. It doesn’t work. The ants are fakes and the shock value derived as they devour anyone unfortunate enough to get in their way is minimal at best.

There are other missteps along the way. Forget the aforementioned escape from nuclear annihilation by hiding in a fridge. At one point Indy swings through the jungle on vines like Tarzan. Blanchett cannot produce a credible Russian accent to save her life. Shia LeBeouf’s Mutt is a gangly wannabe fortune hunter who’s too curt, yet too precious to be Indy’s offspring. In the end, the pieces don’t fit and the story simply lumbers along to its inevitable conclusion. Despite its financial success – predicated more on fan following generated by the first three movies – Crystal Skull is an unworthy successor to the original trilogy.  

Paramount Home Video unleashes Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures (at least until Lucas and Spielberg decide to do another one) on Blu-ray. In recent days there have been discussions regarding the remastering effort on the original film. Paramount has done an extensive cleanup in its hi-resolution scan and the results are astounding. Previously issued DVDs of Raiders had an overall cooler tone, with richer blues. I was ten when I saw Raiders at the theater and do not recall this cooler tone from that experience – if I was aware of it at all. The Blu-ray has a very warm visual characteristic that I personally find more in keeping with the original intent of the film makers. The Tunisia locations, as example, now have a very dusty, fully saturated ruddy brown color scheme that seems accurate to my eyes.

Otherwise, there is virtually nothing to complain about with any of the hi-def transfers featured in this collection. The first three movies look very film-like: 4k scans reveal a naturalistic patina of film grain while concealing the obviousness in the artistry of their matte paintings. Flesh tones are warm, but again, look exceptionally natural and accurately rendered. Fine detail will astound. Background information is razor sharp like I haven’t seen before, but without any obvious signs that edge sharping has been liberally applied. Ditto for DNR. So, we get a very fine presentation indeed, extending to the newly mastered DTS 5.1 audio that really packs a wallop.

Paramount has been liberally criticized on message boards for not providing more ‘new’ extras on this set. But actually they’ve done a bang up job giving us everything from their previously issued DVD box sets, including trailers and teasers in HD for each film. We also get another disc loaded with morsels sure to tantalize the average fan and avid aficionado alike. Two separate hour-long featurettes on Raiders kicks off the bonus pack, followed by a forty minute featurette on Temple of Doom, and a half hour on Last Crusade and Crystal Skull respectively.  All of these extras are presented in HD which is a genuine bonus indeed. We also get a fascinating collection of ‘behind the scenes’ junkets that cover everything from the stunts to the sound and scoring of the franchise, AFI’s tribute to the women of the series, and some left over short subjects on Crystal Skull. Bottom line: this is a fitting tribute to Indiana Jones. Most fans will eat it up. Paramount has done its homework and this set bears out their attention to detail.  Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Raiders of the Lost Ark 5
Temple of Doom 4.5
Last Crusade 3.5
Crystal Skull 1

Raiders of the Lost Ark 4.5
Temple of Doom 4.5
Last Crusade 4.5
Crystal Skull 4.5


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