Monthly Archives: April 2014

30 Years later: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

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I want to thank the 1980s for the multitude of truly great science-fiction films like Aliens, The Terminator, The Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner, Predator, and other films that I’m not remembering or haven’t even seen yet, like John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’d also like to thank it for the truly bizarre pieces of fantasy like Labyrinth. And last, but not least, I’d like to thank it for the two good Indiana Jones movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. 

Now, why did it have to give me Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom as well? On the 30th anniversary of the film’s original theatrical release, I can honestly say that I think it is an abominable piece of shit. But it’s kind of fascinating in the context of our nostalgia-soaked culture.

First, the movie. It’s awful. And it totally shouldn’t be. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the architects behind the very good Raiders of the Lost Ark, two very good friends who enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other, returned for another film in 1984 to for another romp. But it seems that the only real motivation was to.make a ton of money. It sure as hell wasn’t to expand on the character in any way. Because at the end of this prequel, we have learned literally nothing new about the title character. In fact, we’re left with more questions than answers: why did Indy say he didn’t believe in ghost stories in Raiders if he saw a dude’s heart catch on fire after it was ripped from his chest and he was still alive? Why does he not believe in ghosts when he was a clear victim of voodoo magic and blood-drinking brainwashing? Why the hell does this 40 year-old man run around with a Chinese sidekick? Why didn’t he take him to an orphanage?

The point of a prequel is to explain something about a character that we didn’t know about in a previous movie. Ironically enough, the Star Wars prequels did a better job at hashing out important main characters than ToD. Here, not only do we learn nothing about Indy, we learn nothing about any of his friends or family.

But those narrative faults aren’t what make this movie a catastrophe for two-thirds of its run time. And you know the element that I’m about to harp on.

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Kate Capshaw.

She gives maybe the most annoying, grating, unbearable, train-wreck-of-a-performance that I’ve ever seen. Willie Scott, thanks to her screeching and wailing, is an annoyance. Her character could have gone one of two ways: one, which is the wailing asshole that she is, or as a put-upon, exacerbated fish out of water trying to maintain her dignity. Vanity is ingrained in her character through the script (she’s always looking for jewels), and she could have come off as a much more nuanced character. Instead of wailing, she could just be grimacing. Instead of helplessly crying, she could be forcefully ordering. But Capshaw plays her as a whining housewife plucked from Orange County, whose almost too scared about breaking a nail to save people’s lives and she’s a gigantic prick throughout the movie.

Speaking of dick, she was also sleeping with director Steven Spielberg during filming, so not only did she ruin this already-bad movie, she also ruined a marriage. What a total reverse-course from the previous installment’s Marion Ravenwood.

And while he’s not nearly as suicide-inducingly bad as her, Short-Round pisses me off, as well. The film introduces us to him after a lengthy club sequence where Indy negotiates with Chinese gangsters over a diamond (WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING IN THIS FUCKING MOVIE?) and Indy basically kidnaps Willie. Seriously; he pulls a gun on her (only because she’s close, and she has no knowledge of what is going on here) and tries to use her as a bargaining chip. Later in the scene, Indy pulls his hostage out of a window while Short-Round pulls up in the nick of time to save Indy from a posthumous murder-suicide-racketeering charge.

Ok, so Short-Round proves his usefulness. Then, he speaks. And GODDAMNIT why does he have to sound like a such a prototypical “plucky” sidekick and slightly racist caricature? “Oki doki Dr. Jonesy!” “I touch nothing!”

OH GOD, MAKE IT STOP!

Thankfully, the main characters do finally shut up (which is never a phrase you should utter) and this movie does get better. The third act kicks up the action enough to where Spielberg throws a barrage of gore and violence at you. Spielberg has always been good at maintaining tension throughout action scenes and knowing just when to make the right cut or where to put the camera to capture the action.

Also, Temple of Doom really is shockingly violent at times, which is what defenders of the movie have accused haters of conflating with poor quality. “It’s just too dark for you” is a common retort. My retort to that is of course “no, it just sucks ass.”

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Indy is the same character throughout the movie, as are Short-Round and Scott. The white man saves the day with the help of his Asian sidekick and literally useless female companion (she does nothing but hinder Indy’s quest, except for the one time she punches a guy). We learn nothing about the titular character.

Well, maybe that’s not true. We learn that he’s a MAJOR pussy-hound who will go after any attractive woman, no matter how insufferable she is. At least Elsa had some brass.

IT’S NOT QUALITY, IT’S MEMORY

Nostalgia holds sway over people like a disease. It hinders critical thought. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes it as “homesickness” or “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Essentially, nostalgia is a longing for the past, as I’ve said before.

We all like to get a little nostalgic about some past part of our lives. And it’s easy to associate a product with that nostalgia because it conjures up pleasant memories of an innocent time in our lives. But there comes a point where the memory has overridden the senses. I get that you may not be as annoyed with Kate Capshaw as I am, but even looking past that, think of what the character contributes to the story: nothing. She doesn’t help Indy, she doesn’t add dimension to any of the other characters or proceedings, and she doesn’t have trait besides being a one-note screeching banshee.

It really is an example of just how empty blockbusters can be. With no illumination of our main character and total disregard for its own world and its audience’s own tolerance, Temple of Doom is one of those 1980’s films that exists as a monument in the generational debate; where nostalgia, memory, and perspective conflate with quality and analysis. And where there might be no end to the conversation. So sound off in those comments!

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The Subversion of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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SPOILERS BELOW. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE. ALSO, GO SEE THE MOVIE. IT’S AWESOME.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best Marvel solo movie, and maybe the best Marvel movie period. Its balance of action and story, plot and character are examples of Doing it Right. It gives ample time to show multiple facets of its important side characters, all but one of whom aren’t white men. And while the titular Winter Soldier is the one that gets sidelined in favor of another “save the world” plot, at least what the world needs saving from is fascinating.

HYDRA takes over S.H.I.E.L.D. for the purposes of protecting humanity from itself. Armin Zola argues that humanity can’t be trusted with its own freedom. And that World War II taught him and his HYDRA cohorts that humanity needed to be convinced to voluntarily give up their freedom. And he does all of this as a Fallout-style computer that he downloaded his brain into.

Yup. Captain America: The Winter Soldier uses a gleefully pulpy, 1950’s sci-fi convention to make the point that people have traded in their freedom for the illusion of security. It’s a popular topic of conversation in the political and sociological sphere, and for good reason. We are giving up our freedoms; the Patriot Act and the NDAA are just two examples of the effects of our continued complacency.

The movie basically gives its audience a giant middle finger with the most comic-book-ass-comic-book trope I can imagine. A trope borrowed from 50’s sci-fi and kind of out of place for the otherwise grounded The Winter Soldier. It marries its juvenile (and awesome) roots with genuine political awareness. Maybe in a hokey sort of way, but it does it. But this isn’t the only aspect of the movie that subverts our expectations.

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Did you think Capt. America was a square? A jingoistic jackass who only served his purpose in the era of World War II? So did I, until Captain America: The First Avenger. That movie made me realize this character isn’t the jingoistic “America is right” caricature I assumed he would be. Or at least, he isn’t that anymore and won’t be in the movies. But it’s The Winter Soldier that makes me a genuine fan.

As Bob Chipman points out in his review for the Escapist, you can’t NOT get political in a movie that takes place in a post-9/11 world and whose main character is named Capt. America. There is going to be an unavoidable subtext no matter what the character does. But by making Cap the guy who questions the government’s tactics of preemptive strike and lack of transparency, he becomes an antagonist for how the real government operates. Capt. America sometimes has to fight America.

And the fact that it’s HYDRA pulling the strings implicates the US in a different way. In the movie, Zola mentions Operation Paperclip, a government operation that brought Nazi scientists to America. This was a real thing that the US did. By merging this bit of reality with the movie’s fiction, the movie insinuates that the US, in real life, has succumbed just as much S.H.I.E.L.D. has to Nazi influence. Or almost as much. Obama’s not building giant helicarriers. He does have a lot of drones, though.

Steve Rogers is the embodiment of all of the good ideals that we, as Americans, like to aspire to: a perfect outside masking intelligence, self-confident, selfless, and eminently just human being. And while he is the leader, he surrounds himself with two black men and two women as his only confidants. Diversity surrounds the Captain and it’s these people who save the day with him. He has no qualms about race or gender and he’s against the fear-mongering that has taken over his government. He’s a progressive, and in that sense, he’s only a man out of time because he’s still apparently too progressive even for our world, whose leaders are still terrified of minorities and women having power.

I was starting to get a little worried about Marvel. Iron Man 3 came off as a movie that wasn’t willing to go deep into itself or its characters, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is infuriatingly safe on most weeks. But The Winter Soldier ups the ante on everything. I was never off the Marvel Movie Train, but now I’m starting to enjoy the ride again.