Indiana Jones and The Kingdom
of The Crystal Skull (2 1/2 stars)
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by David Koepp. With Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, and Shia LaBeouf. (PG-13)
It beggars belief to think that almost two decades have passed since the last installment of the Indiana Jones saga. Somehow, Harrison Ford's iconic fedora-topped adventurer has seemed to be always with us, armed with little more than a bullwhip and a wry, lopsided grin, ready to tangle with the Nazis—always his best adversary—over some relic. In some ways, he has been with us: the years between 1989's Last Crusade and this summer's release of Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull saw his back story serialized in a television series starring Sean Patrick Flanery as a young Jones, and the general feel of the Jones pictures has been borrowed by a number of other films, most egregiously in the insipid National Treasure series, where a globetrotting Nicolas Cage tracks down historical treasures.
Still, it was with great fanfare that the return of the original was announced. Director Steven Spielberg and story man George Lucas have said that the long wait was mostly due to the lack of a great script. After seeing what they settled on, it appears that particular requirement fell by the wayside at some point. The new film, a mish-mash of what made the earlier Jones film so great plus a surprisingly bland sci-fi plot, turns out to be much like Lucas' later Star Wars installments—a shallow cartoon given a high polish.
From the beginning, one gets the uneasy feeling that this story is moving into territory ill-suited to Jones; the film's opening scenes take place in a vast warehouse in Area 51, where some dastardly Russians are after a mysterious box labeled Roswell. Led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), the Russians are essentially the old Nazis of earlier films in new outfits, and Blanchett, with a severe bob cut and a closet full of stylishly evil jumpsuits, gives Spalko the mix of Boris-and-Natasha menace and blandness that a stock villain demands. The Russians are after the skull of the title, which they believe will lead them to a powerful mind-control weapon they can use to turn the world into a communist paradise.
The film, set in 1957, uses the "red scare" feeling of the time well, and Jones soon finds himself suspended from his university position when the FBI come sniffing around. Ready to skip town, he's tracked down by a greaser named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who brings news of an old friend of Jones' who has gone missing in the jungles of South America after tracking down another of those mysterious skulls. With the chance for discovery—and payback—lighting a fire under him, Jones sets off for Peru with Mutt in tow. The addition of LaBeouf's Mutt is a mixed affair—he adds a spark of vigor to a film whose titular hero has lost a step, but his character is little more than a collection of '50s clich?s. Motorcycle? Yes. Switchblade? Yes. Ducktail hairdo? You bet. Rebellion against society that secretly masks a rich and sensitive soul? Of course!
Things get a little more interesting when the boys land in Peru, and Jones discovers that Mutt's missing mom is none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Jones' love interest from the first film in the series. Allen was always the secret heart of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a female lead whose spunk and tomboy tendencies proved the perfect foil for the gruff tenderness of Harrison Ford, and it's great to see her back onscreen. She picks up right where she left off, gamely charging through one adventure after another with a joyous, slightly maniacal grin.
But all the good performances in the world can't help if the filmmaking isn't there to support them, and sad to say, that's the case here. Too many scenes go too far, and Spielberg seems intent on playing this Indy for family-friendly laughs much more often than in the past. With three stories behind him, there are a lot of easy references to make, and most of them find their way into the film without adding much, though a few—like an early nod to the end of the first film, and a touching tip of the hat to late actor Denholm Elliott—are welcome additions. The green screen gets a workout, too, especially in a cringe-inducing scene of LaBeouf swinging Tarzan-style through the jungle.
Worst of all, the central piece of the plot just doesn't work. When the crystal skull is finally revealed, it looks more like a particularly hideous hood ornament than an ancient treasure. With none of the magic that surrounds our long history with the Ark or the Holy Grail, it doesn't have the feel of possible truth that made those earlier quests so interesting. Instead, the film becomes a Saturday afternoon movie about little green men, building to a climax so baldly literal it's jaw-dropping. It may still be better than most of its imitators—thanks mostly to Ford's well-developed Jones—but as what's likely his last turn in the famous hat, it's a disappointing final chapter.
The Dhamma Brothers (4 stars)
Directed by Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, and Anne Marie Stein. With Grady Bankhead, Ron Cavanaugh, Jonathan Crowley, and Edward Johnson. (NR)
This slight film, plainly shot and only a little more than an hour long, carries an unexpected emotional charge that lasts long after the credits roll. Set in the maximum security Donaldson Correctional Facility, The Dhamma Brothers documents an unlikely and inspirational experiment in the often rigid system of American prisons, one that, in its own way, offers even those with life sentences that most precious feeling: freedom.
Donaldson, in rural Alabama, is where some of the state's worst criminals are sent; a hulking structure surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences, and towers manned by armed guards, it's penned in on most sides by the Black Warrior River. It's an institutional place where the inmates, dressed in white, are herded from cell to cell under the flat fluorescent lighting that marks prisons everywhere. It is not where one would think to look for inspiration; paradoxically, it's also one of the places where inspiration is needed most.
That inspiration came to Donaldson in 2002, when it became the first maximum security prison in the country to offer an extended Vipassana retreat. Brought to Donaldson through the efforts of rehab director Ron Cavanaugh, the Vipassana program is a 10-day session of meditation, during which participants live an almost silent life punctuated by the soft ringing of ceremonial gongs. This "noble silence" is a means of focusing a person inward, letting its practitioners feel their own sensations without simply reacting to them. As one prisoner says, "It helps you think about you."
Thirty-six prisoners signed on to be part of the retreat. Among them were murderers sentenced to life without parole, who make up the bulk of the film's central characters. The experiment is initially greeted with skepticism by many—the prison is in the heart of the Bible Belt, and a Buddhist import is labelled by one town resident a "kind of witchcraft." Others see it as coddling, saying the prisoners don't deserve the kindness suggested by the program.
Yet when Vipassana instructors Bruce Stewart and Jonathan Crowley arrive, it's clear the program is no holiday. Highly regimented, with a rigid code of discipline, the retreat is in many ways even more strictly structured than daily life in the prison. After a long introductory session, those taking part are sequestered in the prison gym for the retreat. The results are amazing. Interviewed later, many speak of a moment of breakthrough. Never about being forgiven, the meditation nonetheless helps these men to realize that their lives are not defined by their worst acts, even if those acts mean the rest of their lives are spent in Donaldson. Even the skeptical guards, at first sure the prisoners were simply trying to take advantage of an opportunity, admit that many seem to emerge changed men. It's an odd twist: for the guards, it's results that matter, and of all involved, they seem to have the least issue with the origins of Vipassana. Something must be working—as one guard says, "They don't give us as many problems" afterward.
Sadly, the prison chaplain doesn't share their view, and his complaints about the program—that it's siphoning off worshipers of God in favor of a foreign religion—get it closed down the same year it begins. The Dhamma Brothers, as the men come to call themselves, struggle to retain their sense of brotherhood, meeting when they can and hoping they don't bring down further restrictions. Prison life itself gets in the way as well, and some take third-shift jobs simply because the quieter hours let them engage in meditation. Others are transferred to different facilities, where the Vipassana practice is unknown.
Luckily, a change in administration brought a fresh point of view to the system; in 2006 Stewart and Crowley returned to Donaldson to offer another retreat, and the program is slowly spreading to other prisons in the region. It's not a cure-all, and some prisoners—especially younger or newer inmates—are apt to try their hand at gaming the system in hope of an early parole: the "fake it 'til you make it" mentality. Yet at the end of the retreat, Stewart notes that "even they benefited," and it's enough to make one wish Vipassana programs were as widespread as our prison system itself.
Love Songs (3 1/2 stars)
Written and directed by Christophe Honor?. With Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, Chiara Mastroianni, and Clotilde Hesme. (NR)
In Love Songs, writer/director Christophe Honor? has crafted a kind of musical romance that falls somewhere between Jacques Demy's quintessentially French The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the young-and-earnest Rent. And perhaps there's something inherently French in this kind of storytelling—Rent may have been a hit here (at least in its stage version), but it was built on the bones of La Boh?me. While Honor?'s film doesn't quite rise to the level of its forebears, it's an interesting meditation on the varied natures of love.
Here the story is one of modern love, where romance and desire seem less fixed in place than in times past. The duskily handsome Louis Garrel stars as Ismael, a charismatic Parisian enjoying a m?nage ? trois with lovers Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) and Alice (Clotilde Hesme). When a tragic loss upsets his universe, he finds unexpected solace in Erwann, a young man who floats into his social circle.
If the film's tripartite structure bears a resemblance to Demy's 1964 film, the appearance of Chiara Mastroianni—daughter of Cherbourg star Catherine Deneuve—makes the implied connection explicit. As Julie's grieving sister Jeanne, she provides one of the film's strongest performances as she insinuates herself into Ismael's life.
In the end, musicals aren't the easiest sell, and any movie of this kind is at the mercy of its audience's acceptance of song as a narrative device. The music here is by Alex Beaupain, and his songs are presented au naturel, without the elaborate song and dance numbers of musicals past. Their imperfect melodies are a welcome match for the tumultuous emotions at the heart of the story.