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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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 It’s now 1957, and World War II has since been replaced by the Cold War, meaning our intrepid archeologist-professor-swashbuckler now has his hands full battling Commies instead of Nazis.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.

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Fantasy fans who felt the void created by the wrap-up of the Lord of the Rings flicks in 2003 could take comfort in the identical elements -- magical creatures, large-scale battles, simplistic delineation of good versus evil -- that were on display in 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

With that film proving to be almost as potent at the box office as the LOTR trilogy, we now get The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, which turns out to be that rare sequel which improves upon the original. Prince Caspian is decidedly a darker picture than its predecessor, which seems to be the path taken by many second installments in film franchises (The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Back to the Future Part II, The Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation). In this one, the four Pevensie kids -- Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) -- find themselves at a London subway station one minute and back in the magical land of Narnia the next. But this isn’t the lovely, bright Narnia they left behind; now 1,300 years later (in Narnian time, of course), they’ve returned to find a gloomy environment in which humans (the Telmarine race) have taken over and all mystical creatures are believed to be extinct. One of the Telmarines, the dashing Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), is the rightful heir to the throne, but after an assassination attempt by his uncle (Sergio Castellitto), he elects to hightail it to the woods, where he discovers that talking animals and other enchanted Narnia denizens still exist after all. Eventually, the prince, the woodland inhabitants and the Pevensie siblings band forces to restore Narnia to its previous glory. A couple of familiar faces from the previous picture return in small roles, yet it’s cast newcomer Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) who walks away with this film; he’s excellent as Trumpkin, a surly dwarf who slowly warms up to the four children who invade his territory. As for the kids, this is clearly a case where girls rule, boys drool. Susan cuts a fierce figure as a warrior queen, while Lucy is allowed to establish the strongest bonds with the Narnians. On the other hand, the interesting Edmund is given too little to do, while Peter is only slightly less generic than fellow pretty-boy Caspian.

What Happens in Vegas

When invited to join me at the press screening for What Happens In Vegas, a good friend of mine declined, e-mailing, “I can only stand one romantic comedy a year, and No Country for Old Men was it for me in ‘08.” That quip’s funnier than anything found in the actual movie, and 20th Century Fox would have done well to hire him to pen the film’s screenplay.

As it stands, this is the year’s umpteenth assembly-line rom-com, although it’s admittedly easier to take than most of its predecessors: It’s less obnoxious than Fool’s Gold, less forced than Made of Honor and less formulaic (well, by a sliver, anyway) than 27 Dresses. Cameron Diaz plays Joy, an ambitious Wall Street trader who’s just been dumped by her fiancé (Jason Sudeikis); Ashton Kutcher is Jack, a slacker who’s just been fired from the company business by his own dad (Treat Williams). They both decide to head to Vegas, where they meet, get drunk and wind up married. After sobering up, they realize they don’t even like each other, so once they’re back in New York, they try desperately to get a divorce. Instead, the judge (Dennis Miller) sentences them to six months of marriage, requiring them to visit a counselor (Queen Latifah) weekly to monitor their progress.Diaz is typically winning, while Kutcher doesn’t blend in with the furniture as much as he usually does. But those attending the film hoping to scope out the title city will be disappointed, since most of the action takes place in New York City.

Speed Racer

To complain about the excesses of Speed Racer would be like bitching that there are too many rib eyes kept on ice at your local steakhouse, or that there are too many references to God in the Holy Bible. Anyone who ever watched the original 1960s cartoon series (which, along with Kimba the White Lion, largely introduced Americans to Japanese anime long before it became the mainstream rage) can recall that show’s frenetic pace, often zippy visuals and gaudy color schemes. The Wachowski Brothers, who created a whole new world with The Matrix, have now decided to push the envelope once again, this time by transforming the cheesy, on-the-cheap cartoon into a gargantuan, all-expenses-paid summer blockbuster. It’s clear that one of their goals was to introduce a new visual vocabulary to cinema, perhaps even influencing the direction of the medium itself. That’s not likely to happen. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the visual wizardry behind Speed Racer. But visual wizardry is about all that the movie has going for it, and it’s hard to rally the troops behind so chilly a leader.

Iron Man

Given their general status as popcorn flicks heavier on the decadent calories than on the nutritional value, I’m always pleasantly surprised by how much care Hollywood studios take when it comes to casting their superheroes in franchise flicks.

Otherwise, we’d have had to endure such box office draws as Adam Sandler as Superman, Will Ferrell as Spider-Man and Mike Myers as Wolverine. Instead, we’ve been lucky enough to have been privy to (for starters) Christopher Reeve as Superman, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (George Clooney as Batman, not so much). With Iron Man, Paramount Pictures settled on an actor who turned out to be both unexpected and just right. Robert Downey Jr. is hardly an unknown, yet any baggage he brings to the role only serves to enhance the character, not diminish him. Centering on the Marvel Comics character created back in 1963, Iron Man smoothly updates the action from the Vietnam War era to the Iraq War era without missing a beat. Swaggering, self-centered inventor and industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) has attained both fame and fortune by providing the U.S. military with its most reliable weapons of mass destruction. While in Afghanistan to show off his latest invention, Stark is captured and injured by a group of insurgents who drag him off to their mountainside lair. There, a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub) creates an electromagnetic device that prevents shrapnel from reaching Stark’s heart. Realizing that this is only a temporary fix, the two set about working from Stark’s designs on how to build a special suit of armor. Back home, Stark re-evaluates his life and realizes that instead of continuing to build instruments of death, he wants to dedicate himself to fighting for peace. This decision perplexes his faithful right-hand woman Pepper Potts (a game Gwyneth Paltrow), his best friend Rhodey (Terrence Howard, asked to coast until the next film) and his business partner Obadiah Stane (an imaginatively cast Jeff Bridges). Nevertheless, Stark won’t be swayed, and to accomplish his goal, he sets about building a sleeker, more efficient and infinitely cooler outfit. Stark’s difficulties provide the film with many of its most amusing moments, as do the flirtatious interludes between Stark and Pepper (Downey and Paltrow work well together).

Made of Honor

Those of us reviewing films back in the late 80s/early 90s remember Patrick Dempsey as a talentless 20-something who regularly turned up in bombs like Run and Loverboy. He largely disappeared for a decade or so, occasionally popping up in minor TV projects and straight-to-DVD titles, before unexpectedly rising Lazarus-like from the dead with a career-redefining turn on the hit series Grey’s Anatomy. It must be said that middle age agrees with the 42-year-old Dempsey. As witnessed in last year’s Enchanted and now Made of Honor, Dempsey has settled into being a competent (if passive) romantic lead on the big screen. And for his first starring role since his rebirth (since Enchanted was all about Amy Adams), he’s wisely picked a project that will only further his standing as the country’s resident “McDreamy.” Unfortunately, those of us hoping for entertainment value beyond mere eye candy will be sorely left hanging with Made of Honor, the sort of romantic comedy that Hollywood spits out of the formula factory on a tight schedule. The second underachieving rom-com of the year to headline a Grey’s Anatomy player (the first was Katherine Heigl’s 27 Dresses), this cribs from the vastly superior My Best Friend’s Wedding in its portrayal of two longtime pals -- one male (Dempsey’s womanizing Tom), one female (Michelle Monaghan’s brainy Hannah) -- who have always been afraid that intimacy would ruin their perfect camaraderie. But once Hannah goes to Scotland for six weeks, Tom realizes that she’s been the right one all along; unfortunately, when she returns stateside, it’s with a fiancé (Kevin McKidd) in tow. Comic desperation can be seen at alarmingly frequent intervals. The fellating-female-bobblehead gag was handled far more wittily in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (is this 2008’s unexpected movie trend?), while other dim comic bits include such Hail Mary desperation passes as Hannah’s grandmother mistaking glow-in-the-dark anal beads for a necklace (and of course wearing them throughout the film) and a Scottish relative’s name, Athol, being misunderstood by the Americans as -- well, take a guess.

Baby Mama

With Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and other comedians routinely hoarding the screens in our nation’s multiplexes, here come Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to remind audiences that, like their male counterparts, girls just want to have fun. Indeed, the Cyndi Lauper hit of that name is granted its own karaoke-set scene in Baby Mama, and its inclusion is fitting in a movie that’s similarly pointed, joyous, and light on its feet.Even funnier than the current Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which itself is pretty damn funny), Baby Mama stars Fey as Kate Holbrook, a successful businesswoman who finds out that she only has a one-in-a-million chance of getting pregnant. Wanting a child more than a man (but open to both), this news hits her hard, and she turns to an agency to provide her with a surrogate mom. She ends up getting Angie Ostrowiski (Poehler), who clearly resides several rungs down the social ladder. After Angie becomes pregnant, circumstances force her to move in with Kate, and it’s not long before Angie’s slovenly lifestyle clashes with Kate’s obsessive-compulsive behavior, and vice versa. The plot complications arrive with clockwork precision, and it’s this rigid formula (along with a ludicrous development at the end) that prevents a fine movie from being even better. Yet judging it strictly on its comic merits, Baby Mama delivers (pun not intended, I assure you). Scripter Michael McCullers (who also directed) serves up several killer quips guaranteed to remain among the year’s freshest, and the two perfectly cast leading ladies are backed by an engaging mix of emerging talents and seasoned veterans. Among the relative newcomers, Romany Malco is a bright presence as a straight-talking doorman, while Dax Shepard holds his own as Angie’s doofus boyfriend. Yet it’s the old pros who really shine: Sigourney Weaver is suitably smug as the head of the surrogate center, gamely being shellacked by some of the script’s best zingers. And then there’s Steven Martin, spot-on as the creator of the organic health food chain for which Kate works. Mocking New Age-y tendencies is a moldy idea long past its expiration date, yet in his portrayal of the ponytailed Barry, Martin positively makes it seem like a notion that’s never been tackled before. Whether name-dropping celebrities with delicate precision or “rewarding” Kate with five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact, Barry is a real piece of P.C. work.

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Back in 2004, I gave Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle 2-1/2 stars, and I’d be a hypocrite if I elected to stick with that rating. That’s because I’ve since been compelled to see the movie twice more, and what originally struck me as a fairly even mix between sharp satire and sophomore humor has proven itself to clearly be a clever comedy in which even the bawdy gags display a certain degree of ingenuity in their conception and execution. It’s pretty much guaranteed that Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay won’t be enjoying a similar critical ascension in the years to come. Aside from a crack involving Osama bin Laden’s beard, the gross-out gags aren’t particularly fresh, and because the satire is less subversive and more overt than before, what you see is basically what you get. As the brash and impulsive Indian-American Kumar and the more sensible and sensitive Korean-American Harold, Kal Penn and John Cho again deserve the lion’s share of the credit for making these pictures work. They’re an engaging team, and here, the plot requires their characters to get mistaken for terrorists while on an international flight; soon, they’re being interrogated by a moronic Homeland Security honcho (Rob Corddry) who decides to send them to Guantanamo Bay to enjoy a steady diet of “cock-meat sandwiches.” But before long, the boys escape and find themselves on a cross-country odyssey that involves in-bred Southerners, a “bottomless” party, dimwitted Klansmen (or is that a redundancy?) and even George W. Bush himself. And yes, Neil Patrick Harris returns, again playing himself as a sex-crazed, foul-mouthed party animal. Kumar’s pursuit of a former college flame provides the film with more plot than its predecessor, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. And bringing back Harris was wise, but did we really need a replay of Kumar’s fantasy sequence involving an anthropomorphic bag of pot?

More amusing is the dead-on parody of Red State twits (repped by Corddry’s government agent, who literally wipes his ass with a copy of the Bill of Rights) who question the patriotism of everyone who isn’t exactly like them (i.e. white and pseudo-Christian); these scenes aren’t exactly subtle, but they do point out the line that can barely divide satire from reality (just ask Barack “Do you believe in the American flag?” Obama).Curiously, the movie’s portrayal of Dubya is a sympathetic one. As played by frequent Bush impersonator James Adomian, the president turns out to be a congenial, simple-minded pothead who isn’t evil, just misunderstood. Coming from Hollywood, that’s high praise indeed.

Nim's Island

If your kids have been totally weaned on ADD-addled animated flicks that mostly coast on crude humor and instantly dated pop culture references, then this clearly isn’t the film for them. If, however, said children still find as much enjoyment (if not more so) in opening a book as in piloting a video game’s remote control, then this delightful family film will satisfy them in no small measure. Like last year’s Bridge to Terabithia, it views a child’s imagination as a tangible playground, and this angle is sharply delineated by the colorful flourishes of directors Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin. Jodie Foster, the most prominent child actress of the 1970s, here hands the torch to Abigail Breslin, with the latter playing Nim, a precocious girl who lives on a remote island with her scientist father (Gerard Butler). When she’s not frolicking with her animal friends, Nim enjoys reading adventure novels featuring the Indiana Jones-like Alex Rover, so when her dad goes missing and strangers invade the island, she naturally e-mails Alex Rover to help her. What her young mind doesn’t grasp is that her hero doesn’t actually exist; instead, the books are written by Alexandra Rover (Foster), an eccentric agoraphobe who carries on conversations with her fictional creation (also played by Butler) and who reluctantly sets out to help Nim in her hour of need.

Drillbit Taylor

An assembly-line comedy in virtually every facet -- you can set your watch by the moment when the formerly aloof Drillbit (Owen Wilson) is visibly moved by a charitable act on the part of one of the kids -- this dispiriting attempt at corralling laughs has little to offer anyone except die-hard Owen Wilson fans.

, and even those devotees might feel dejected after watching this charming if one-note actor spinning his wheels in such a tiresome character type.