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New releases: <i>Indiana Jones</i>, etc.

On the Indiana Jones Scale of Cinematic Achievements, the eagerly awaited Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull places dead last among the four big-screen Indy adventures. Given the quality of its predecessors, however, that can hardly be construed as a smackdown.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is one of cinema’s all-time greats, while Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) are two sequels that can hold their heads high. Nineteen years after the last installment, Steven Spielberg and pals again demonstrate they weren’t about to rest on their laurels. It’s now 1957, and World War II has since been replaced by the Cold War, meaning our intrepid archeologist-professor-swashbuckler now has his hands full battling Commies instead of Nazis. The Russians, led by a slinky ball of black-haired menace named Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), need Indy’s cooperation in helping them obtain an object -- a crystal skull, of course -- that will aid them in their quest for world domination. Indie’s journey to thwart them reunites him with Marion Ravenwood (three cheers for the return of Raiders’ Karen Allen) and also allows him to share adventures with a brash young greaser (Shia LaBeouf) and a loony old professor (John Hurt). Longtime fans will find the references to past films delightful and they’ll similarly be pleased to find Spielberg once again at his most limber. The first two-thirds of the film are such a blast that it makes the final section feel even more like a downer than it would under other circumstances. The plot in each of the first three pictures was convoluted, but all the disparate elements eventually coalesced. By the time we get to the climax here, we demand something truly marvelous, but all we get is a fairly lackluster finale that shamelessly borrows pieces from the Raiders and Last Crusade endings. Equally disappointing is the realization that the film showcases paper villains not worthy of Indy’s time: Even Blanchett’s Irina Spalko is fairly dry, lacking the suave menace of Paul Freeman’s Belloq (from Raiders) or the slimy sadism of Ronald Lacey’s Major Toht (ditto). But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is really about one character, the man who, to borrow the auto slogan, is Built Ford Tough. It’s been 11 years since the superstar has appeared in a movie that entertained (Air Force One), and it’s been depressing watching this talented performer fritter away a once-illustrious career in garbage like Hollywood Homicide and Firewall. Here, though, the 65-year-old actor again dons the role that fits him like a glove, and his enthusiasm and athleticism (as always, he performed many of his own stunts) serve to further fuel our own glee for the project.

Son of Rambow

With all four Rambo flicks hitting DVD in a lavish new box set, now’s as good a time as any to check out Son of Rambow, a British coming-of-age yarn whose central premise is that a Sylvester Stallone actioner can influence budding filmmakers as much as any classic ever crafted by Welles, Hitchcock or Lean. Set in a small English community in the 1980s, this sweet fable focuses on Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a mischievous lad who’s always getting into trouble, and Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), a quiet boy who belongs to a strict religious sect that forbids most contact with the outside world and its trappings (such as film and television). Lee bullies the naive Will into serving as the stuntman on the action flick he’s creating for the sake of a TV competition (Screen Test, an actual U.K. series back in the ‘70s and ‘80s); once Will watches First Blood, Lee’s inspiration for his own film, his imagination is fired by this taboo medium and he throws himself wholeheartedly into the project. It all sounds a bit precious, but Poulter and especially Milner are such charismatic young performers that they inject Son of Rambow with some genuine poignancy (both boys lack father figures, to say nothing of friends) to go along with the expected comic shenanigans. And the word is that even Sly Stallone gave this film a blessing, marking one of the few times that the guy involved with the likes of Judge Dredd and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot has displayed a modicum of good taste.

The Strangers

One of my cinematic pet peeves is when a fellow scribe describes a motion picture as pointless. Despite the scarcity of story, or lack of depth among the characters, or general ineptitude on every level, the filmmakers had some sort of vision -- some raison d’etre -- for making their movie, and that alone means it has some sort of point. Now here comes The Strangers to test out my long-standing theory and risk turning me into a hypocrite. Is there a point to this anemic thriller in which a young couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) are terrorized in a secluded vacation home by three masked invaders? Maybe the point is to show how none of us are really safe from the evils of the outside world, even when we’re in our own homes. That’s a moldy premise that barely needs repeating: For starters, just the past two months alone have seen the theatrical release of Funny Games and the DVD release of the French import Them, both wielding identical plotlines. Or perhaps writer-director Bryan Bertino’s only purpose is to scare the living hell out of audience members, a noble pursuit in this age of fright-free terror tales. But The Strangers isn’t scary, only boring, and the final image shows that Bertino didn’t even have the balls to follow the story to its logical ending. His cop-out may not make the movie even more pointless, but it certainly makes it more insulting.