May 22, 2008

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (PG-13)
Harrison Ford brushes the dust of nearly 20 years off his fedora and gets back to the business of adventuring in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a solid reminder of why most of us 30somethings can remember at least a week in our childhoods where we considered a career as an archeologist.

In fact, I wonder how many 30- and 20-something archeologists are still secretly hoping for the day when they’ll have to take off on an international journey to fight Nazis and preserve some cultural artifact.

Indiana Jones (Ford) might be a few decades older than when we last saw him but he’s still sporting the hat and the ruggedly handsome face and getting himself into trouble, as evidenced by the car trunk from which we see first his silhouette and then Jones himself (in full hat-wearing glory) emerge. Jones has been taken to a vast U.S. government warehouse, one that seems rather familiar. When Soviet agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, doing her best “moose und squirrel” accent) starts talking about the significant item hidden within, we almost think we know what it is (until we remember the trailer, which showed us that the box in question is marked “Roswell 1947”). As with all good Indiana Jones games of cat and mouse, the commies have the upper hand for but a moment before Jones is able to start the chase. Later, back at the academic ranch, Jones finds himself all full of piqued interest by his run-in with the Soviets and ready to pursue a new lead which somehow connects to a legend of Crystal Skulls and their role in an ancient South American culture. This time, he has some help/interference by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a boy who shows up on a motorcycle in perfect Marlon Brando The Wild One pose saying that he has a coded letter full of crystal skull-related clues and a mom who knew Indiana back in the day.

What is the difference between this movie and, say, National Treasure 2? In some ways, not much. Here, as in National Treasure 2, you have some ancient cultures folderol, some globe-trotting and some quippy moments between fellow travelers. So what’s different? Every little thing. I can imagine Ford getting some flack for being a bit wooden here, but a wooden Ford in a brown fedora is already light years ahead of 95 percent of all other movie action heroes. Perhaps there are bits of silliness in the movie’s central mystery, but there are fun surprises too and fans of, well, to avoid too much spoilage here let’s just say regular fans of quirky mystery adventure-type TV shows will like how some of the elements fit together. You have the sense that someone spent some time with the plot specifically and the script in general and, except for one tell-tale “I’ve got a bad feeling abou this,” you probably wouldn’t guess that person was notoriously iffy dialogue-writer George Lucas. And speaking of one half of the wonder team (and Lucas really does deserve credit for giving us, finally, a new story for beloved characters that really pays homage to the movies they originated from), allow me to state the obvious about the other — Steven Spielberg can shoot a darn fine action movie. I know what you’re thinking — next I’m about to shock you with a revelation that the sky is blue or that movie theater popcorn might be butter-flavored but doesn’t always, strictly speaking, have butter on it. But after years of just accepting that Spielberg is some divine being with E.T.-like abilities to revive any movie, no matter how wilted, it’s worth remembering that before he became all serious and God-like, he was a regular Joe moviemaker who could absolutely crush the box office competition with some of the most roller-coaster-fun blockbusters ever. Having him in the director’s chair for your blockbuster is like having Thomas Keller at the stove for your dinner — this is absolutely a guy who knows his craft and will give you the best product that the ingredients can provide.

Which is to say I had fun — maybe not the very bestest kind of movie fun, but a great deal of fun nonetheless. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t climb quite as high on the “dude, awesome!”-meter as Iron Man did, but nor is it as violent or as sarcasm-rich. This is unironic, wonder-inducing Indiana Freaking Jones — this is as innocently giddy as popcorn movies get. B+

Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images. Directed by Steven Spielberg and written by David Koepp, George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson (from characters by Lucas and Philip Kaufman), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is two hours and three minutes long and will open in wide release on Thursday, May 22 (with some late-night openings on Wednesday, May 21). The movie is distributed by Paramount Pictures