Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Title: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Release Date: May 22, 2008
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

When The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out in 2008, I was excited to see a new Indiana Jones movie after such a long wait.  But life intervened and I didn’t get to around to seeing the movie, and then I heard all the reviews about how bad it is.  I decided to refrain from watching the movie up until now since I was watching the previous three installments and decided it was time to complete the series to date.

I’m glad I did, because while Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not quite on par with Raiders and The Last Crusade, it does share a lot of those movies’ sense of adventure, humor, and warmth. The big criticism I’ve seen of this movie is the “nuke the fridge” scene where Indy survives an atomic bomb test blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator.  Honestly, this didn’t seem to me any less plausible than Indy surviving being dragged behind a truck or falling from an airplane in an inflatable raft.  There are other issues that did trouble me though that I will address soon enough.

Indy’s sidekick in this movie is Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a 50s greaser kid who comes to ask for Indy’s aid in finding his mother.  I’d not seen LeBeouf in anything else before, but I thought he did a good job of portraying a younger adventurer who’s worldview is different from Indy’s but still follows a moral code.  Ray Winstone plays George “Mac” Michale, a friend of Indy’s from when they were spies during WWII (wouldn’t THAT make a great movie), who is a twist on a trusted ally like Sallah.  The main villain is Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko, who is hilariously over the top in her performance. The biggest treat is the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood who has a strong chemistry with Ford as they act as if they really do have a long, unseen history in the intervening 30 years.

The movie features some great action setpieces, including a motorcycle chase in a Connecticut college town, and a jeep chase/sword fight in the Amazon jungle. Being set in the 1950s, the villains are naturally from the Soviet Union.  Like the third season of Stranger Things, this movie has the annoying Cold War cliche of Soviet military detachments operating within the United States which just gets under my skin.  We never saw Nazis operating in the United States in the first and third films, for example.  Much of the movie is set in the Amazon region of South America where Indy and his comrades fight the Soviets on neutral ground. Unfortunately, in South America the film runs into cultural competency problems with insensitive depictions of indigenous tribes.

Even worse, the whole “crystal skulls” concept is rooted in the idea of Ancient Aliens (or in this case “inter-dimensional beings”) who are alleged to have taught indigenous peoples how to use technology.  The whole pseudo-history of Ancient Aliens is just a racist concept and there’s not getting around it despite how the filmmakers try to twist away from it.  The whole third act of the movie is built around the Ancient Aliens (and whole lot of CGI) and it his here where the movie falls apart after being quite the entertaining and rollicking adventure for its first 2/3s.  Still, it’s far superior to The Temple of Doom and I would enjoy watching it again.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)


Title: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Release Date: May 24, 1989
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

To win back the enthusiasm of viewers turned of by The Temple of Doom, the story of The Last Crusade adopts many of the features of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It begins with a prologue not directly related to the main plot, this time depicting Indiana Jones as a teenager, wonderfully portrayed by River Phoenix.  The main story starts with Indy teaching at college and being approached for a project.  Side characters Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) are back for another ride. And the villains are once again Nazis, with many of them receiving satisfying punches.

The similarities though only serve to help undercut expectations.  Indy’s putative love interest in this movie is Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody, who’s paucity of subsequent film credits mystifies me), a brave and clever art professor.  But in one of the great cinematic heel turns, she ends up being a villain in league with the Nazis.

The biggest twist, of course, is the presence of Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery), a seemingly somber medieval studies professor obsessed more with finding the Holy Grail than raising his son.  The chemistry between Ford and Connery is amazing, and Connery is excellent at taking his career as an action hero and funneling it into an older and wiser man.

The Last Crusade has great actions sequences, terrific humor, and a lot of heart.  It is a deserving second recipient of a 5-star rating for an installment of the Indiana Jones franchise.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)


Title: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

Even as a child, The Temple of Doom failed to live up to its predecessor.  Sure there parts I liked that still stand up, mainly the action set pieces of jumping out of an airplane in an inflatable raft and the mine cart race.  The ick factor is strong in this movie from a meal of insects and monkey brains to a cave full of live insects to a man’s beating heart being ripped from his body.  I’m less squeamish as an adult but still feel these scenes are gratuitous.

As a kid, I liked Indy’s sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan).  With the perspective of an adult, I see he’s another example of “80’s Movie Kid” – the cute but precocious wisecracking kids who reached their nadir with Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.  Short Round isn’t overly obnoxious, and gets a few good laugh lines, but it’s distressing how much of his character is rooted in racial stereotypes.  The depiction of Indian people and the Hindu religion in this movie is even more insulting.

While Raiders offered Marion Ravenwood, a woman capable of being an adventured on par with Indiana Jones, The Temple of Doom features Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) as a nightclub singer completely unprepared for trekking the wilderness and fighting for magical stones.  Arguments can be made for whether this is sexist or just a realistic depiction of a “fish out of water,” but the thing that troubles me is that Indiana Jones basically abducts her from the nightclub and takes her on the airplane.  There is no reason within the movie’s own logic for Willie to be on this adventure and she has every right to do much more than whine and complain about her mistreatment.

One aspect of this movie I’d completely forgotten about was the part where Indy is put in a trance and forced to serve Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).  It’s telling that a talented but stubborn actor like Harrison Ford seems to be mailing it in during these scenes, as if he’s frustrated with the lazy storytelling.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an ugly film in many ways and it hasn’t aged well.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


Title: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Release Date: June 12, 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

When I was a kid growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, my family frequently saw movies at the State Cinema, a second-run movie theater that charged only $1-2 for a ticket to see a movie a few months after it had been released (a big savings on the scandalous $5 ticket prices at first-run theater).  Too be clear, this was not an arthouse theater showing movies that were many years old, all of the movies at the State were movies released in the past year.

The one exception was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which for some reason the State kept bringing back again and again for years after it’s 1981 release.  And we went to see it a lot! It’s almost certainly the movie I’ve watched on the big screen the most times.  And yet, without any intention of doing so, I hadn’t watched it in a loooong time.  The last time I remember watching the movie was 25 years ago when I was in college, and since I’d taken several archaeology classes was a bit snobbish about it to.

So I watched this movie with somewhat fresh eyes.  There are a lot of things I liked as a kid that I’ve discovered have not held up well and are very problematic. Thankfully, Raiders of the Lost Ark is not one of them. It does have it flaws in cultural competence, no doubt, but avoids a lot of the stereotypes present in Hollywood films.  For example, there are a lot of Egyptian characters in the film – some are good, some are evil, most are in the background but none of them come across as the “evil Muslim terrorist” trope common in movies made after Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Probably the strangest thing in this movie is that the most prominent “Egyptian” character in this movie, Sallah, is played by a Welsh actor, John Rhys-Davies.  I never cottoned on to this as a kid, but Sallah’s accent actually sounds pretty Welsh.  It’s unfortunate that an Arabic actor was not cast for the part, and especially so since Rhys-Davies has become a prominent Islamophobe in recent decades, but his performance is respectful and very entertaining.

I’m also impressed by Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, who is a clever and capable character at a time when most women were not (the big exception is Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies).  She really is the equal of Indiana Jones as an adventurer and intellect.  In retrospect, it’s disappointing that Karen Allen didn’t get her own Marion Ravenwood spinoff movie in the 1980s.

Harrison Ford’s performance reminds me of why he’s so deserving of his acclaim as one of the great actors of our time. He is subtle in his gestures in a way that conveys a lot of emotion and humor.  And unlike Han Solo, his Indiana Jones is extremely confident without being arrogant, and shows his vulnerability at times.

The action set pieces and special effects which were so revolutionary at the time seem to hold up well (I’m sure there are some people who can pick them apart, but they work for me).  Lots of Nazis get punched, which remains satisfying.  As a kid, I was affected by the horror elements of the movie (such as the faces melting when the ark is opened) but I’d completely forgotten one of the most terrifying scenes when Marion gets caught in chamber of skeletons who are shrieking for some reason.

The depiction of archaeology is still rubbish – they are clearly treasure hunters who actually destroy a number of antiquities in the process of acquiring the Ark of the Covenant.  But then again “Raiders” is right there in the title, so you are warned.

Despite its flaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark is still an all-time classic and I can’t give it any less than five stars.

Rating: *****

Book Review: Stone by Stone by Robert Thorson


Author: Robert Thorson
TitleStone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls
Publication Info: New York : Walker & Company, 2002.
Summary/Review:

I grew up in New England, and as a child who liked to wander in the woods, I often came upon stone walls.  Even alongside the parkways of Connecticut, I could see from the car window the long stone walls that once divided up farms now claimed by forests and suburban subdivisions.  When I moved to Virginia in my teenage years, I noticed the absence of stone walls.

Stone by Stone is the most thorough examination of New England’s stone walls I can imagine. Thorson begins with the geological processes that created New England’s rock landscape before detailing the history of the stone wall’s creation, use, readaptation, and eventual disintegration.  Along the way he dispels some myths.  For example, most stone walls were not built during colonial times.  This is because early settlements were built along the coast and in river valleys where the soil wasn’t rocky, but in the early 1800s the forests of inland New England were cleared and stones were unearthed.  The processing of clearing forests also made possible the cycle of frosts that caused many stones to rise through the surface through frost upheaval.  And while new stones needed to be cleared each year, the rocks were not limitless and the upheaval of new stones would end after about 50 years of clearing.  By this time though the land may have already lost it’s productivity for growing crops and reused for another purpose.

There’s an intense amount of detail in this book and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone except those with nerdiest interest in the topic.  But Thorson does have a way with words that makes the book quite engaging, as you’ll see in the excerpts below.

Favorite Passages:

“Conventional histories correctly describe how New England’s stone walls were built by farmers who patiently cleared glacier-dropped stones from their fields.  But this story alone cannot account for the magnitude of the phenomenon, or for their structure — thick, low, and crudely stacked.  To understand the archetypal stone walls in New England – primitive, mortar-free, and “tossed” rather than carefully laid — one must turn to the techniques of the natural sciences, in which observation, induction, and analysis carry more weight than quasimythic tales of early America.

The story of stone walls is a very old one, and is appropriately told by a geologist, whose job is to reconstruct the history of the Earth.  The emergence and decay of New England’s stone walls falls under the domain of geoarchaeology, a subdiscipline whose goal is to interpret human artifacts within a broader geological perspective.  Consider this book a geoarchaeological study of stone walls, the first of its kind.” – p. 9

“However tidy well-built walls might appear, most functioned originally as linear landfills, built to hold nonbiodegradable agricultural refuse….

Stone walls not only transformed waste into something useful, they arguably “improved” the local wildlife habitat with respect to diversity.  Prior to wall construction, the dry-land habitats of cliffs and ledges were much more restricted in New England; animals and plants that had adapted to such terrain had a greater chance to survive because stone walls and stone ledges offered similar opportunities.” – p. 10

“Worms don’t actually create new mineral soil or organic matter.  But by constantly stirring the soil, they inevitably concentrate finer-grained material nearer the surface.  Everything too big for a worm to move will sink as a part of the stirring process, partly because it is dense than the surrounding loosened soil.  The primary reason, however, is that stones either remain where they are or move downward, whereas the finer-grain materials can move either up or down.  The net effect is to sink coarse fragments.

Sandier soils, which are common throughout New England, especially when beneath conifers, are too acidic for significant earthworm activity.  In these soils, ants are the most important agent in stirring soils. Several species of ants not only survive New England’s harsh winter, but reproducing at astonishing rates.  They are constantly busy within the soil, bringing fine-grained material to the surface and in the process, sinking the stones.  Building on Darwin’s work, and focusing on ants, the nineteenth-century Harvard geology professor Nathaniel Shaler examined a four-acre field in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He estimated that common ants brought enough particles to the surface that, if spread out evenly, would cover the entire field at a rate of ‘a fifth of an inch’ each year.” – p. 45

“New England statutes still specify the appointment, jurisdiction, and duties of the fence viewer, although their  power is much diminished and hardly noticed.  But in the late colonial period, they would cruise rural land like the state troopers of today, looking for trouble and writing citations.” – p. 56

“When the farmer walked away from his stone wall for the last time, the human forces that caused the walls to be built up in the first place were replaced by the forces of nature, which will take them down.  The forward part of this reversible ecological reaction – the construction of walls – was powered by solar energy, which was captured via photosynthesis in crops that were eaten and converted to mechanical energy  in the stomachs of the farmers and their stock.  The deconstruction of walls is also being powered by the sun.  In this latter case, however, the solar energy is captured and converted to mechanical energy via wind storms, tree roots, animal burrowing, chemical disintegration, running water, and seasonal frost.  Given enough time, and if left alone, the stones that were once concentrated in the form of the wall must eventually be dispersed back to the field. There, they will be further dispersed into the volume of the soil, buried once again by soil processes, making it appear as if the land had never been cleared.” – p. 93

 

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Secrets of Underground London (2014)


TitleSecrets of Underground London
Release Date: 21 May 2014
Director: Vicky Matthews and Gareth Sacala
Production Company:
Summary/Review:

Not secrets of the London Underground (although there are some) but of 2000+ years of history hidden beneath the surface of England’s capital.  There’s a lot of nifty bits of subterranean trivia in this admittedly corny and sensationalist documentary, including:

  • ruins of the Roman amphitheater
  • Black Death plague pits
  • the labyrinthine Chislehurst Caves where miners extracted chalk for rebuilding London after the Great Fire
  • the innovative Victorian-era engineering of the Thames Tunnel
  • London Underground stations used both as air raid stations and to hide treasures from the British Museum during World War II
  • Churchill’s War Cabinet rooms
  • the lost Fleet River
  • the construction of an expansion of the British Museum into a new space four stories undergroun

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts by Joseph M. Bagley


Author: Joseph M. Bagley
TitleA History of Boston in 50 Artifacts
Publication Info:  Hanover ; London : University Press of New England, [2016]
Summary/Review:

A few years ago I listened to the brilliant podcast series A History of the World in 100 Objects presented by the BBC and the British Museum.  Joseph Bagley also listened to this podcast while he was at work and since he’s the city archaeologist of Boston it inspired him to write this book.  Bagley selected 50 objects and broke them down into 5 time periods: Native American Shawmut peninsula before colonization, 17th century Puritan Boston, 18th century growing Boston, Revolutionary Boston, and 200 years as an independent city from the 1780s-1980s.  The artifacts come from several significant archaeological sites including the Katherine Nanny Naylor Privy in the North End, the Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown, Boston Common, the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, along the Big Dig construction site, and Brook Farm in West Roxbury.  My favorite artifacts include weaving by the Massachusett, a bowling ball from a time when the Puritans forbade such things, vaginal syringes from Ann Street brothels, a Hebrew prayer-book (at the African Meeting House!), a Red Sox pin, and children’s toys.  Each artifact tells a story and from them Bagley draws a bigger picture of the people in that time and place.  Together the 50 artifacts tell an intriguing history of Boston and is a brilliant introduction to archaeology as well as advocating for the importance of archaeology programs in local governments.  This book is a must read, especially if you have any interest in archaeology or Boston history.

Favorite Passages:

“Archaeology, as we archaeologists describe it, is simply the study of the human past through the artifacts that people leave behind.  One important thing missing from this definition is a cutoff date – the coin dropped today is already part of the archaeological record.  When I encounter people who doubt this fact, I always remind them that archaeology is not about the stuff, it’s about the story.  We may know more about the story of daily life now because we live in the “now” and can see how many things interconnect in someone’s life, but over time, these connections break down and the meanings behind various aspects of the past are lost.” – p. 173

Recommended BooksRubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William L. Rathje, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz, and Highway to the Past: The Archaeology of Boston’s Big Dig by Ann-Eliza H. Lewis

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy


Author: William Rathje and Cullen Murphy
TitleRubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage
Publication Info: University of Arizona Press, 2001
Summary/Review:

This book documents the fascinating efforts of the Garbage Project in Tuscon, AZ to use archaeological practices to study garbage – officially known as municipal solid waste – collected from outside peoples’ homes as well as excavating landfills.  These studies show patterns of consumption and disposal that are different from what people volunteer in surveys.  Rathje and Murphy also describes many fascinating I-never-thought-of-that aspects of garbage and it’s disposal in landfill and incinerators, including a historical survey.  He also debunks many popular beliefs about trash.  For instance, things people think are common in landfills (styrofoam and diapers) are not, while we don’t usually think of the things that do take up a lot of landfill space (construction debris and paper).  And while the concept of biodegradable waste is popular, excavations show that very little actually biodegrades in landfills, although this may be a good thing as it prevents the creating of waste slurry that contaminate water and surrounding areas. Even recycling is more complicated than believe, as many things collected to recycle (with the exception of aluminum) far exceed the demand of manufactures to recycle them.  This book is surprising in both what it reveals about humanity through our waste as well as the sense of optimism it gives in that the waste problems while huge are not as bad as we may think they are.  Much of what is described in the book happened 20 or more years ago.  I’d love to see an update on the Garbage Project and how the challenges of municipal solid waste are being addressed today.

Recommended books:  In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz
Rating: ****

Book Review: Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson


Author: Marilyn Johnson
TitleLives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble
Narrator: Hilary Huber
Publication Info: Tantor Audio, 2014
Summary/Review:

Johnson’s book is a peek into the lives of archaeologists ranging from the expected academics working on notable sites to the more every day contract archaeologists working for little pay and a lot of love.  There are even forensic archaeologists who use the tools of the trade to help solve crimes.  By interviewing archaeologists and participating in classes, conferences, and field schools, Johnson exposes the reader to a wide variety of the practitioners of archaeology and their craft.  I studied archaeology in college and thought of going into the field, but all the same I was surprised to read about people I know, including my college classmate Grant Gilmore.  An excellent book about an endlessly fascinating (and undersupported) field of study.
Favorite Passages:

We think we know what archaeologists do, but, like librarians, they toil behind an obscuring stereotype.  The Hollywood image of the dashing adventurer bears little resemblance to the real people who, armed with not much more than a trowel and a sense of humor, try to tease one true thing from the rot and rubble of the past.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Archaeology of Home by Katharine Greider


Author: Katharine Greider
Title: The archaeology of home : an epic set on a thousand square feet of the Lower East Side
Publication Info: New York : PublicAffairs, c2011.
ISBN: 9781586487126
Summary/Review: With much anticipation, I received this book as an advanced reading copy through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  Greider and her family lived on two floors of a refurbished tenement house on East 7th Street in Manhattan until a home inspector discovered that the building was unstable and on the verge of collapse.  She researched the house’s history to deal with contractors and lawyers and from that grew this fascinating microhistory.  Starting with pre-colonial native tribes through Dutch and English settlement, the construction of the tenement in 1845 and all it’s residents through the troubled era of the 70’s & 80’s, Greider details the lives and times of the people who have lived on this spot and their neighbors.  It’s a detailed look at the use of one plot of land that touches on history, archaeology, ethnography and sociology.  Amidst the history is Greider’s own story of renovation, lawsuits, and displacement which I did not like so much, in fact it uncomfortably reminded me of Under the Tuscan Sun (one of my least favorite books).  This should be a book that I love in that it covers many things I’m obsessed with – history, New York, immigration, social life, urbanism – but alas I just like this book.  I had to put this book down several times while reading it because I just couldn’t get into it Greider’s writing style.  Nevertheless I salute her brilliant premise and extensive research in creating this book.

Favorite Passages:

“The typical Manhattan abode simply lacks the square footage necessary to organize interior space according to expectations.  What you get instead is a commingling of functions that are normally segregated and an intimacy some find inappropriate or uncomfortable.  Children share a bedroom, or even sleep in their parent’s room.  Often there’s only one bathroom.  In a few of the oldest tenements, the bathtub is still in the kitchen.  People often eat in their living rooms.  Entertaining in these circumstances is almost unavoidably casual.  If a couple who lives in a tiny walk-up invite you to dinner, you will witness the ferocious labor required to prepare a hot meal in a galley kitchen, to drag out a folding table while kicking toys out of the way, and then to tidy up the blitzkrieg that results.  It is all very unlovely and close; acquire the taste and nothing could be nicer.” – p. 80

Recommended books: New York Calling by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger and Five Points by Tyler Anbinder.
Rating: ***1/2