Thursday, August 30, 2012

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

As compared to the other Indiana Jones follow-ups, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fosters an altogether different sensibility. While Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade bear noticeable (however different) flaws, they each have an aura that’s identifiable by various visual or narrative elements. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is less accessible than those films, both in terms of its relation to the broader lexicon of the series and as a unique chapter within it. At the time of its release four years ago (and 19 years after Last Crusade), I noted that it strained heavily to honor and amplify the nostalgia of its own legend. Seeing the film again several years later, away from the commercial hype, and in succession with its predecessors, I can more readily appreciate its layered compositions and busy thematic undercurrents. None of this changes the fact that this is coldest and least inviting of the four Jones affairs, a fact that only makes the film more intriguing than its reputation suggests.
            The nearly two-decade gap between Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and its immediate predecessor may explain its heavy dose of reflexive mythology. Dating back to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg has frequently framed Jones in silhouette, and here he takes the concept to new planes. After a traditional introduction to Harrison Ford's hero (with his shadow cast against a military truck), an encounter in plastic suburban platitudes resolves with the obscured shape of Jones subjugated by an atomic mushroom cloud encompassing the frame. Allusions to modern technology abound throughout the otherwise historically fixated Crystal Skull. David Koepp’s screenplay features long discussions about a Spanish conquistadors and intra-dimensional space, while Spielberg only shows a passing interest in Jones’ evolving family drama. Compared to Last Crusade, in particular, Crystal Skull is light in emotion and is more concerned about how a hero like Jones finds a place—both physically and symbolically—in a world increasingly defined by suspicion and the specter of desolation.
            These elements play well against the atmospheres and jaunty rhythms of 1950's. (The brilliant opening title sequence offers a slice of American innocence, complete with Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" playing over, before unveiling how its been infiltrated by KGB.) To boot, Spielberg’s fluid visual senses are ever sharp. The action sequences are beautiful to look at; every time you expect an edit the shot lingers and plays out the action in smooth fashion. The film falters in its loose grasp of conflict (translating to a general lack of tension) and its poor rendering of characters. Both Cate Blanchett’s villain and Shia Labeouf’s “Jr.” are poorly realized, and the tough bad guy henchman is cartoonishly excessive. These sour notes spotlight the film's curiously murky and overdone performances across the board. (Even the reliable Jim Broadbent does a lot of unnecessary shouting.) Additionally, while I confess to loving the central conceit of the alien plot, it feels neither fully complete nor fully integrated into the proceedings. This is ultimately what sets Kingdom of the Crystal Skull apart from its predecessors. It arguably has more going for itself with intricate thematic overtones and visual acuities but most of them are half-formed, resulting in a film that—despite serving up a handful of great moments and several other good ones—lacks a definitive stamp.
            Overall, I find Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the most difficult Jones film to penetrate. On one hand, I see an uncommonly nuanced film for its type (as Keith Uhlich argued in a wonderful piece several years ago), but I also understand why Jones devotees and casual fans alike felt distanced by it enough to lump it with George Lucas’ shunned Star Wars prequel trilogy. (Steven Spielberg, 2008) **½

Friday, August 24, 2012

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

In my recent piece on Raiders of the Lost Ark, I touched briefly on the nuance that Harrison Ford infuses into what could have been another ordinary hero. In both that film and its sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ford embeds a range of detail into the character of Jones that the screenplays do not. He is at once a serious professor and a boyish adventurer. Some would say he womanizes, but Ford makes Jones more as the kind of person who really might have wanted to settle down if he wasn’t so impulsive and defensive. He verbally spars with women as if he was in the schoolyard and exhibits a similar immaturity in his physical fights with enemies. The point is that Indiana Jones is vulnerable, and Harrison Ford taps into that both hilarious and subdued ways throughout both films. While the stylistic splendor of the movies also plays an important role in their success, Ford’s layered portrayal of a character whose heroic persona is offset by his own arrested development is the anchor of the films.            
            The third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, represents a significant shift for the series. The previous two films kept the storytelling focus on the adventure and left Ford to inject humanity into the character with his performances. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the emphasis is taken off of the adventure and placed on the character of Jones himself. It does this through the prism of Indy’s rocky relationship with his father, Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery). Although the plot concerns the search for the Holy Grail, the real focus of the film is on Ford and Connery, whose undeniable chemistry results in wonderfully awkward interplay.
Many retrospective accounts of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade credit Sean Connery for his portrait of a traditionally stern father, but it’s Ford that shines in every exchange between the two. Indy’s plight for his father’s love and acceptance comes through in quiet moments that likely carry subatomic weight for anyone who’s every struggled to connect with a parent. Certainly, there are a few over-the-top moments of speechifying (and a rather contrived finale that converges the Grail and Papa Jones), but the film largely carries out this thread through well-observed humor. Notice the dismissing tone in Ford’s voice in the scene when he and Connery are tied back-to-back and flames are quickly engulfing the room. When Jones Sr. has “something to tell” him, Jones casually retorts: “Don’t get sentimental now, Dad. Save it ‘till we get outta here.” Another favorite exchange of mine comes after a narrow encounter with a plane in a tunnel. As the plane flies away to turn around, Indy races to get away from the scene before stopping and remembering that his father is still with him. After belting out a disapproving “Dad!”, he calms his voice, adjusts his hat, and keeping the same condescending tone, says: “He’s coming back.”
As in moments like these, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade often beautifully expresses the challenges of father-son relationships. In fact, so affecting is the character focus that it also articulates the triviality of the actual Grail-quest and illustrates the central problem of the film. Aside from a handful of exuberant sequences—most notably the train-chase opener with a young Indy (River Phoenix) escaping from bandits in the Southwest desert—Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade lacks the color and energy of the previous episodes. One of the main missteps with the story is its self-conscious attempt to return to the sensibilities of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is likely a response to the negative feedback Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom received. Nevertheless, this entry lacks the lore and the colorful characters that marked Raiders and falls short in generating much tension or interest in the main conflict. The desert tank chase represents a rare moment that coheres the film’s disparate sensibilities into a big set piece with a real sense of stakes, but otherwise Indiana and the Last Crusade struggles to make the combination of its elements work.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a problematic film. Though despite taking on water in various places, it remains afloat on the unstated benevolence of its observations. In a way, the film can be seen as an allegory for many parent/child relationships. There are certainly rough patches, but sometimes—even when you expect a big moment—a simple brush of the shoulders and a “Well done,” says everything. (Steven Spielberg, 1989) ***

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Despite the thrashing it received upon release, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom arguably eclipses Raiders of the Lost Ark in at least one respect. The sense of adventure in this second episode of the series may in fact be the sumptuous of all four films. Preserving the Saturday afternoon serial style of Raiders, director Steven Spielberg and writer-producer George Lucas are mostly consistent in approach but opt for a whole new setting for the second adventure. The film opens in a Shanghai nightclub and gives Jones a Bond-esque introduction after a spirited song-and-dance bit for the credits. From there, Indy ends up on a plane that crash lands in India, leading him to a depraved village where the sacred Sankara stones have gone missing along with villagers’ children. This all happens in the film’s opening act—and I'm not even covering the outlandish action sequences. In some ways, the busy first act mimics Raiders of the Lost Ark’s final hour with its random chain of events strung together to resemble a plot. Then, Indy and his companions—the bratty American singer, Willie (Kate Capshaw), and the punchy young Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan)—are off to a mysterious palace, where within its caverns dwells a cult that enslaves children and makes human sacrifices to its evil god.
            You have to hand it to Spielberg and Lucas: purely in terms of story, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is pretty deranged stuff. More importantly, they dig deep into the material and give it the inspired treatment it deserves. Amid the jungle trekking and heart extractions, Spielberg fashions oozing atmospheres and a frenetic pace that together give Temple of Doom a distinctive feeling from its series companions. The tradeoff, however, is that the film lacks the discipline and patience that distinguished Raiders. For instance, both both Willie and Short-Round are ill conceived, working only as comic relief in an otherwise gloomy film. Even worse, the screenplay has both sub-characters playing key roles in several crucial moments, which throws cold water on any energy the film builds in its second half. But based on the size of the set pieces, it’s clear that Spielberg is so preoccupied with delivering more kicks than the last film that he loses sight of the elements that makes this kind of storytelling such a thrill to begin with. We all know this is inherently kids’ material, but the beauty of Raiders of the Lost Ark is how it plays its scenario with a straight face and gives it such lavish treatment. When you see a 12 year-old beating up fully-grown and fit adults, the magic is lost; whether the material is believable to start with is beside the point.
            What stings the most is that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom plunges to depths that no other Jones film approaches. Even Harrison Ford has a hint of demonic zeal behind his eyes and more vigor in his voice. It's a shame that Spielberg and Lucas have publicly apologized for going “too dark,” because the real problem is that they compromise the deliciously dark core of the movie with forced humor and intermittent stupidity. Had they followed through on their initial impulses and not allowed their weaker inclinations to compensate for them, this film could have been really special. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that in spite of its flaws, Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom is a movie of overflowing imagination. That it is sloppy, occasionally appalling, and uncomfortably colonialist doesn’t change that it is inspired filmmaking. Unfortunately, in pouring on mood and excitement, Spielberg left the flaws exposed and revealed just how delicate was the balance Raiders of the Lost Ark achieved. Indeed, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom cannot compare to the mastery of its predecessor and deserves some of the criticism it has received. But the sluggish, sometimes balletic experience it offers also makes for a spectacularly unhinged account of cinematic pleasure. (Steven Spielberg, 1984) ***

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Given its tumultuous six-year history from filming to release, the vantage point from which I waded into Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret undoubtedly colored my complicated response. I should note before going on that the only version of the film available to me was the 150-minute theatrical cut, which, according to several essays I’ve read, is a very different experience than the three-hour plus cut recently released on Blu-Ray.
Having acknowledged this fact, the shortened version of Margaret is kind of profound. It has uncommon insight into the cracks of its characters’ lives, exposing the difficulties of communicating and wanting to be heard. At the center is Anna Paquin, who gives a fervent performance as a privileged Manhattan high school student who is both confident in her every word and uncertain of her actions. Her character witnesses and plays a part in an accidental tragedy that leads to the death of another person. The remainder of the film deals with her guilt as she navigates through various relationships and social roles (daughter, student, citizen, sexually inexperienced teen, etc.). As she becomes more fixated on the truth of what happened concerning the accident, her own life becomes defined by the lies she tells herself and others.
Writer-director Lonergan (who also made the terrific 2000 film, You Can Count on Me) has an intimate approach to the material. He is after more than the guilt and pain of this young woman, and yet he smartly avoids the trap of allegory. Extending the film’s view onto Lisa’s mother, teachers, and other acquaintances, Lonergan creates a web of nuanced character portraits of people who misunderstand and are misunderstood. (It also helps when you have actors like Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, and Matthew Broderick on hand.) Margaret is a bared film to which you must make yourself vulnerable to reap its rewards. While the performances are uniformly excellent and the degree of the painful transactions at times unbearably high, the film lends depth to its perceptive screenplay and performances with an almost hypnotic sense of place. Lonergan’s camera scans up and down city streets and across window-lit rooftops, deriving poeticism from both the stillness and movement of the city. Nevertheless, the frequent shifts in focus cause Margaret to stumble as it unfolds unto other narrative territories. As I noted earlier, I haven’t seen the longer cut, but knowing of its existence compels me to wonder if the film’s problems of flow can be accounted for by its truncated nature. Nevertheless, in its theatrical incarnation, Margaret is an impassioned, if also frustratingly choppy work. (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) ***

Saturday, August 11, 2012

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot

For film critics, Top Ten lists are a fact of life. Yet, despite frequent complaints that Top Tens are a bore to compose at the end of each year, the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll is one of those rare lists to which most critics would love to be asked to contribute. It’s the Top Ten. The lists themselves tend to represent each critic’s best effort to express the knowledge and creativity that the invitation supposes. You can imagine the arduousness, then, of limiting one’s selections of the greatest movies of all time to just ten entries.
Given that my role in the larger critical dialogue is minute as compared to those participating in this year’s Sight & Sound poll, I took to the challenge of a personal Top Ten more in the spirit of fun than soul-searching. Indeed, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about all of the below films in various capacities and stages of my life. Some meant more to me years ago than they do now, while others have lingered in my thoughts and memories beyond what seemed like an ordinary experience of watching them. Some are predictable, others perhaps na├»ve. But they each played an important part in my own development as a film lover, a writer, and a person.
So while individual Top Ten lists represent an opportunity for us all to showcase our film knowledge, I see them more as a reflection of who we are as people. They are all unique, interesting, and flawed, both in concept and execution, which also makes them less significant than their epic design would suggest. That’s why I have opted for simplicity in deciding on the films for my list. While a certain amount of self-reflection is essential, some things are better felt than pondered. The following list is no doubt an expression of my personal tastes and knowledge about film and perhaps even a statement about how I approach life. Then again, it is also a fairly arbitrary ordering of 10 films that mean a great deal to me.

Click here to see my list of Top Ten Films of All Time at Slant Magazine's blog The House Next Door.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Critical Distance: The Dark Knight Rises

Due in part to the late Heath Ledger's iconic portrayal of The Joker, The Dark Knight's huge box-office performance cemented writer-director Christopher Nolan's interpretation of the Batman legend as a zeitgeist-defining spectacle. The three films have aroused a wide range of responses, spanning such topics as the director's aesthetic approach, the self-consciously realistic tone of the films, and even their political underpinnings. In fact, the bounty of critical conjecture and fan praise that followed The Dark Knight was in many ways more important than the film itself, which has become an indirect measure of success in our current age of blockbusters.
Given the enormity of The Dark Knight and the circumstances under which it was released, The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's third and final entry in the series, was certain to generate similar buzz, despite also shouldering an enormous burden to meet unreasonable expectations. The film represents the most sprawling installment of the series, as well as the most vunerable to criticism. While critical and audience reactions have been mixed, I found it more emotionally involving and less aesthetically jarring than The Dark Knight. Yet, despite my enjoyment as I watched it, I came away from the experience curiously having retained very little of its frenzy of plot and action. The reasons for this are similar to those that plagued the earlier entries. In short, the film is a muddle of images and ideas. As such, however, The Dark Knight Rises is more significant than the previous films in Nolan's trilogy. I would even go as far as to say that it is a defining statement regarding its director, not necessarily due to the concerns and ideas he embeds into the film, but for what it says about his concept of storytelling. I arrived at this somewhere over the course of the film's nearly three-hour running time, during which many character and story arcs converge and expand amid endless jawing about social equality and revolution, before finally deflating and signifying nothing.

Click here to read the full article at Slant Magazine's blog The House Next Door.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Sequel-readiness is a defining element of the Indiana Jones pictures. In addition to each of their self-contained stories intimating a sense of the next inevitable chapter on a larger canvas of exploits, they are also episodic by design. One action set piece often leads right into another, in an apparent nod to 1940s serials from which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas took inspiration. But these films have more going on in them than a high-spirited sense of adventure, particularly when viewed as part of a larger succession. With this in mind, I revisited all four films and will document my observations on each entry over the next several weeks.
Taken in the context of the films’ high standing in popular culture as well as my own moviegoing past, the first film in the series—Raiders of the Lost Ark—is somewhat of an anomaly. Stylistically, Raiders of the Lost Ark may have more in common with the work of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese than its series companions (which I will discuss at greater length in my essays on the later entries). The difference, of course, is that Raiders of the Lost Ark has no aspirations of seriousness beyond the sophistication of its own aesthetic. It is pure pulp, meant to imprint on your mind only insofar as its transitory tongue-in-cheek narrative allows. Pauline Kael famously critiqued the film’s forcible dissemination of oversized excitement—a charge that’s undoubtedly true, given how fast it whips from one set piece to the next. (In its second half, the movie goes from a pit of snakes to an airplane fistfight, and then immediately into a truck chase across the desert.) But the film excels beyond its own thrill-induced exhaustion with, among other things, a steady commitment to aesthetic detail.Spielberg frames his shots in wide spaces and edits only when necessary, a technique that apart from its visual appeal also balances out the quick pace of the storytelling. On the other hand, Raiders of the Lost Ark's playful mysticism is equally attributable to John Williams’ brooding music and Lawrence Kasdan’s script—proffering beauties like “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions.” Spielberg accentuates and marries the two with compositional techniques that play heavy on shadows, silhouettes, and pronounced background/foreground contrasts. The interplay of these ingredients creates a rich atmosphere of foreboding and whimsy, yielding moments that stand outside of time and create a strong sense of place within the cartoonish world the film fashions. Even simple scenes of exposition and set-up are enticing, such as when Marcus (Denholm Elliot) walks down the corridor and peers into Indy’s classroom or how Marion (Karen Allen) reveals the headpiece that both Jones and his enemies are after.
Aside from the stylistic flourishes, no account of Raiders of the Lost Ark would be complete without a discussion of man wearing the fedora. Indiana Jones could easily have been another stock hero, which almost certainly would have cast the film into the exile of obscurity. But Harrison Ford’s portrayal is the anchor from which Raiders derives its energy, deepening both the sense of excitement and humor. Despite the character’s introduction as a fearless adventurer, Ford brings a boyish enthusiasm to his interpretation of Jones, who has a knack for winding up in overmatched fights, routinely dishes cheap shots to his opponents, and is the benefactor of a great deal of luck. Ford gradually peels away the tough-guy veneer of Jones’ adventurer persona and reveals a man that is reckless, immature, disenchanted, and seeking acceptance. In other words, he is flawed just as the rest of us.
For all the absurdities that Raiders of the Lost Ark serves up, Ford’s portrayal of Jones as an imperfect hero coupled with Spielberg’s smooth aesthetic do more than merely keep grandiosity levels in check. They have engineered a movie and a character that the medium seldom produces and are mirror reflections of each other. Both are simple, yet also larger-than-life. (Steven Spielberg, 1981) ****