The “Am I Just a Letterboxder Now?” Monthly Review of July 2021

As regular readers (or should that be “regular non-readers” now?) may have noticed, I didn’t post a single review throughout July. Nor anything else, really: my previous post was my monthly review of June. Which somewhat drives me to consider the titular question, because while I’ve become increasingly poor at posting stuff here, I do still log (and write a little about) all my film viewing on Letterboxd. The little snippets I post there aren’t comparable to the full reviews I aim to write here; but, equally, I do actually post there consistently, so which is the more meaningful, really?

I’m not giving up on this blog just yet, but my strategy for finding time to write it (and, perhaps, what precisely I write about) needs some thought once again. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been watching:


#128 Jerry Maguire (1996)
#129 From Here to Eternity (1953)
#130 Strictly Ballroom (1992)
#131 Hotel Reserve (1944)
#132 Sneakers (1992)
#133 The Broadway Melody (1929)
#134 Murder by Decree (1979)
#135 Time After Time (1979)
#136 Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020)
#137 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
#138 The King (2019)
Strictly Ballroom

Sneakers

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  • I watched 11 films in July.
  • That may be my poorest performance of 2021 so far, but it’s bang on the July average (which was, obviously, 11.0 and is now, obviously, 11.0).
  • This is self-evident, but it’s not my best July ever (that was last year, with 29), but nor is it the worst (because that would be my worst month ever: July 2009, my only zero-film month).
  • It fares less well compared to other averages, falling short of both my rolling average for the last 12 months (previously 19.7, now 18.2) and the average for 2021 to date (previously 21.2, now 19.7).
  • This month’s Blindspot film: Powell and Pressburger’s satire of the upper-class attitude to World War 2, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched a pair of films from 1979 that each saw a famous Victorian tackle Jack the Ripper (was there something in the water that year?), Murder by Decree (which sees Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper) and Time After Time (which is H.G. Wells vs Jack the Ripper).



The 74th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Quite a few films I liked a lot this month, but I think I might just give the edge to Strictly Ballroom. I don’t feel it gets talked about as much as Baz Luhrmann’s later works because they refined the stylistic concepts he was aiming at, but it’s a more-than-fair first go at them. It’s inventively made, kookily funny, and, ultimately, shamelessly romantic. If you liked his Romeo + Juliet or Moulin Rouge! but have never gone back to the trilogy’s first part (like me, until now), I strongly recommend it.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Sometimes, you come across a film that you’ve never heard of but sounds good and it is good and you feel like you’ve discovered an overlooked minor classic. Other times, you discover why you’ve never heard of it. Sadly, pre-WW2 ‘wrong man’ spy thriller Hotel Reserve falls into the latter bracket. So much potential, almost entirely unrealised.

Most Inaccurate Title of the Month
There’s no character called Colonel Blimp in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, so we certainly don’t follow his life nor see him die. And as for the character who is presumably ‘Colonel Blimp’, well, spoilers, he doesn’t die either.

Title That Did Its Film the Greatest Disservice of the Month
I’ve seen Sneakers around on streaming platforms and whatnot for years, but always kinda ignored it. That poster is so bland, it tells you nothing; and the title… it’s an American movie called Sneakers: I think I assumed it must be about shoes. So thank goodness for the Film Stories Blu-ray release, which switched me on to the fact that it’s actually a fun all-star heist thriller — immensely watchable and entertaining, just my sort of thing, and nothing at all to do with trainers.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
With only one new post all of last month, I thought I’d throw this open and see what was most-viewed overall. And it was, incredibly randomly, from back in April 2017. Then I reviewed the first episode of Doctor Who series 10, the first seasons of Iron Fist and The Crown, the second series of Line of Duty, the musical episode of The Flash, and the first nine episodes of Twin Peaks season two, plus a few other bits and bobs. I’ve no idea what amongst that might’ve provoked particular interest in the last month.


Nothing. Nada. Zip. Not a sausage.


I continue to be behind pace on my Rewatchathon, which isn’t surprising when my main viewing is behind normal standards too. Still, at least I’ve been watching some stuff…

#20 The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991)
#21 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
#22 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Wrath of Khan being down here feels like a bit of a technicality. You see, for years I could remember seeing a film as a kid in which two guys in spacesuits in a desert had nasty worm-things inserted into their ears. Eventually I learned that scene was from Wrath of Khan, ergo I must’ve seen it as a kid. So it’s taken me decades to finally get round to watching all the Star Trek movies, and it turned out that one scene was more or less all I remembered from Khan (of course I knew other bits thanks to picking them up down the years as a sci-fi fan, but that was the only part I remembered). Anyway, this means I won’t give it a ‘proper’ review (though how much stuff am I properly reviewing nowadays anyway?), but it goes on the list for the Guide To treatment.

And I finished my Indiana Jones HD rewatch… just in time for HMV to have a massive 20% off sale that included the new 4K set, so of course I caved and bought it. Hopefully it won’t take me another decade or more before I watch that… As for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I stand by my assessment from its theatrical release (linked above) that it’s not at all a bad movie. There are some iffy bits, for sure, but overall it’s a plenty worthy return outing for Dr Jones. Maybe one day more people will stop being grumpy about a fucking fridge and allow themselves to have a good time.


With cinemas reopened, the new releases just keep coming. I haven’t yet talked myself into going back to the big screen (in part because I just don’t think I could comfortably wear a mask for a whole movie, though that requirement is now more flexible, I guess), but releases on my radar to almost tempt me include Black Widow, M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, The Suicide Squad, and Jungle Cruise. Ones I’d wait for rental anyway include The Forever Purge and Escape Room: Tournament of Champions… and, even though I’m fairly sure I’m going to hate it, I’ll probably wind up watching Space Jam: A New Legacy someday.

Over on the streamers, Netflix added Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning to go with the series’ other four films that I mentioned last month. Their only original I noticed was the Fear Street trilogy, which I put on my watchlist but don’t feel any burning desire to make time for, to be honest. MUBI brought arthouse hit First Cow to the UK, while, at probably the other end of the artistic spectrum, Amazon offered sci-fi-actioner The Tomorrow War, which I’ve heard mixed things about. They also had belated UK debuts for Guns Akimbo and Shadow in the Cloud (which I, er, acquired back around its US release because it sounded fun, but I’ve not got round to watching), plus Kate Beckinsale actioner Jolt, which sounds dumb and, based on the critics and viewers scores, I think probably is. Other than that, it felt like Netflix and Amazon were both trying to remind me of stuff in my Blu-ray collection that I’ve either never seen or been meaning to rewatch — I could list what, but there’s at least 20 titles in that category.

And talking of my Blu-ray collection, of course there were a load of new purchases. I imported a couple of titles from France (something I haven’t done for a while), so I could get my hands on Godzilla vs. Kong in 3D (bundled with the 4K disc, which is good because I suspect it looks fab on both formats) and The Limey in 4K with special features (as far as I know, France is the only country to have released its 4K restoration on a 4K disc; and the audio commentary is legendary, so I want to finally listen to that). All my other 4K purchases this month were, similarly, things I’ve already seen: fancy editions of The Babadook from Second Sight and True Romance from Arrow, plus regular editions (thanks to the HMV sale I mentioned earlier) of Big Fish, Gattaca, Last Action Hero, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — plus the Indiana Jones films, of course.

In terms of blind buys, I couldn’t resist Indicator issuing The Day of the Dolphin — that’s the film famous for its poster tagline: “unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States.” How can you resist a pitch like that? There were more box sets from Arrow in the form of the Daimajin trilogy and Vengeance Trails, in which they bundled together four obscure Spaghetti Westerns, I guess because they have a better chance of selling as a set than individually. (In fairness, it works on me: things like that and the films in their Years of Lead set, if they were released individually I’d probably wait for them to be cheap in a sale and then maybe buy some of them. In swish limited edition box sets, well, I’m preordering! (Now I feel like a sucker…)) Amongst a few other random purchases were Son of the White Mare, an acclaimed Hungarian animation for which I don’t see a UK release on the horizon so I paid a reasonable price to import the US edition; and, thanks to a Network sale, the fourth series of Quatermass, which includes its movie-length re-edit, The Quatermass Conclusion; and the Up series of documentaries, which are considered a TV series here in the UK but received festival/theatrical releases elsewhere so are often regarded as films. I’ll have to decide whether I count them as films or not… but I’ll have to get round to watching them first.


THIRD IMPACT! Evangelion ends for the third time as the fourth part of the story’s second telling premieres worldwide on Amazon Prime Video.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

2008 #32
Steven Spielberg | 122 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.
For a spoiler-free view, see my initial thoughts.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullI’ve grown up with Indiana Jones around. Not in the way Harry Knowles may have (apparently if you weren’t old enough to see the original trilogy in the cinema, at precisely the right age, then this film isn’t for you), but they’ve always been there. I was so young when I first saw Last Crusade (on video) that, even though it can only have been two years old at most, it was a film that had Always Existed as far as I was concerned (much like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, or so many other ’80s movies that I love). I remember directing a recreation of Last Crusade in the playground (with me as Indy, of course, and one of my best friends hating me for days because he’d been Brody and I’d melted him at the end, my 6-year-old memory having confused the character with Donovan); loving Young Indiana Jones whenever they showed it on BBC Two; visiting the absolutely fantastic stunt show at DisneyWorld Florida; churning through a couple of the tie-in novels (carefully selected from the gift shop based on their blurbs); having the Raiders poster on my door for at least a decade; running around with my Indy hat and Nazi cap gun (wow, we must’ve bought a lot in that gift shop); wishing there were action figures for me to play with (and appropriating an Alan Grant from Jurassic Park for the task, because he had a vaguely similar hat)… There are many more Indy memories locked away in my head, but I think those examples will more than suffice.

And so, about 17 years or so since I first encountered Dr Henry Jones Jr, I finally get to see him in the cinema. I don’t think I’m one to be easily suckered in by that thrill factor, however. I wasn’t one of the people who came out of Phantom Menace extolling it’s virtues only to later realise how disappointing it was; heck, I came out of Two Towers not with the feeling that after a whole year (wow!) of waiting Lord of the Rings was back and wasn’t it great — I thought it dragged for at least the first half and found Helm’s Deep somehow anticlimactic. I say this in defence of the fact that I enjoyed Crystal Skull and think it’s a good film, an opinion that seems oddly rare at the minute. I suspect this will change with time.

That’s not to say the film isn’t flawed, mind. The opening’s a bit slow for my liking, there are few lines that are as funny or as quotable as in the other films, and some moments push things a bit too far — I’m thinking specifically of Indy escaping a nuclear test in a lead-lined fridge. It’s not as bad as Bond surfing the wave from a melting ice shelf in Die Another Day, but it’s not really in-keeping either. Another oft-cited problem is the amount of material the film awards to some of its starry cast members. Actors of the calibre of John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and… well, most people say Ray Winstone, but I think he’s overrated as an actor… still, they don’t get a great deal to do. The problem here is that they’re John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and Ray Winstone — replace them with unknowns and far fewer people would whinge about the size and point of their roles. Quite why an actor like John Hurt would accept such a small, almost one-note role (while there may be more depth to the character, it’s all revealed in Mutt’s memories rather than Hurt’s performance) is a different issue, but he does play the part well.

The rest of the cast fare better: Shia LaBeouf continues to be a star on the rise, here blessed with a teen rebel who isn’t also incredibly irritating. Mutt has a heart, and we don’t have to suffer a two-hour ‘emotional journey’ to find it. He pairs well with Harrison Ford too, and one can see why George Lucas suggests a future for the franchise that emulates the father-son dynamic from Last Crusade. That said, Ford gets his best partner in Karen Allen’s Marion. She was always the best ‘Indy girl’, and while her return may be as surprising as Indy wearing that hat and carrying a whip (not just because we’ve seen her in all the trailers, but who else is it going to be when Mutt first mentions a Marion in the diner?) she plays a vital role in injecting some verbal humour and banter into proceedings. The only other noteworthy female cast member is Cate Blanchett as a villainous Russian psychic (maybe). She’s clearly having bags of fun with the part, and is rewarded primarily with a death scene that is pleasingly in line with those in the rest of the series. This is another moment some reviewers have whined about, saying we’ve seen it before, but personally I’d’ve been disappointed with anything less from an Indy film.

Of course, this is all without really mentioning the man himself. Make no mistake, Harrison Ford is still Indiana Jones. The hair may be grey, the face covered in more lines, but the attitude and humour is still there. This is an older Indy, of course — he’s not only aged nearly two decades since we last encountered him, he’s also lived through the Second World War. The snippets of dialogue that explain what he’s been up to since we last saw him are all very nice for fans too, I think, but are pleasingly not dwelt upon for too long — this is a film that will work just fine for anyone who somehow hasn’t seen the first three. Ford can still hold his own in the action stakes too, running, swinging and punching his way through a variety of thrilling sequences. The screenplay could have used his age as a crutch, leaving him with some comedy running away while the much younger Mutt got stuck in; this isn’t the case, and that’s great.

As for those action sequences, they’re a lot of fun. The best by far is an extended chase through the jungle, including a fantastically conceived sword fight on the back of two moving vehicles. There’s a good deal of silliness in it — Mutt’s Tarzan-like vine swinging, or Marion’s use of a handily-placed tree to get their car into a river — but this is a franchise explicitly inspired by the B-movie thrills of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, in which context these things are more than acceptable. It’s a little daft, but it’s all such fun that if you’re worrying about the realism you’re not entering into the spirit of things. More disappointing is some lacklustre CGI, which is used far more often than Spielberg might have liked us to believe. There’s also a bit with some large ants that may be a little too close to the use of beetles in The Mummy, but as that’s basically an Indiana Jones rip-off it seems only fair to return the favour.

Finally, there’s the MacGuffin: the eponymous Crystal Skull (the “Kingdom of the” prefix isn’t really needed). It’s alien, as long-rumoured, which has undoubtedly angered some fans. Personally, I don’t find it any sillier than the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, equally unreal items (in fact, less real — maybe the aliens are too likely to be true for some viewers?) with equally fantastical powers. It also fits with the mid-50s setting, post-Roswell and heading into the Space Race. The design of the aliens and their saucer is pleasingly retro, though obviously achieved with CGI, and it does tie to theories that ancient monuments and civilisations had contact with aliens (again, true or not, they’re no worse than the religious artefacts of the other films). Like everything else about the film, the MacGuffin may not be quite as good as the equivalent elements in Raiders and Last Crusade, but it pushes close enough.

Speaking of which, it’s worth quickly mentioning the UK rating. For some reason, Crystal Skull is a 12A while Raiders and Last Crusade are both only PG. I swear there’s nothing worse in this film than those; in fact, I’m sure there’s nothing here that’s as likely to be traumatising for youngsters as Donovan melting at the end of the third film. I expect it says more about our variable rating system than it does about the films themselves, but in the unlikely event anyone reading this is wondering about its suitability for a younger audience, there’s my thoughts.

As I mentioned earlier, reaction to the film, both from critics and the general viewing audience, has been somewhat mixed. It seems plenty of fans have left their rose-tinted glasses with their DVD box set and viewed Crystal Skull with the all-too-critical eye of one who isn’t aware they don said goggles to watch the older films. Crystal Skull is a suitable return to the Indiana Jones series — full of fun and excitement, and a good chance to be reacquainted with old friends. It can’t beat Raiders because that came first, automatically embedding itself as the best in the minds of many; and it can’t beat Last Crusade, partly because it lacks the wonderful dynamic between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, and partly because I just love that film. But, crucially, it is in the same league as them, and that’s fine by me.

4 out of 5

My initial reactions to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can be read here.

Indy 4: Initial Thoughts (no spoilers)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullI couldn’t make it to the local midnight showing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so instead I plumped for the next one on the largest local screen (which is also the cheapest student rate locally — hurrah!) A whole 11 hours extra waiting…

The film has now been out in the UK for just over 14 hours, and goodness knows how long elsewhere, not to mention last Sunday’s premiere at Cannes, so the ‘net is already packed with thousands of opinions and full-bodied reviews (almost 3,000 people have already rated it on IMDb, unsurprisingly placing it in the Top 250). Hundreds of thousands more will follow in the ensuing hours, days, weeks and years — I’m sure discussion of Indy isn’t going away soon. Nonetheless, I’m throwing out my thoughts onto my little plot of webspace, just in case anyone cares. I’ll post a proper review another time, but these are a quick handful of reactions having finished the film less than an hour ago. They are, as the title notes, spoiler-free.

From the first shot it’s clear that a playful, entertaining spirit will pervade the film. It’s a bit of a slow open after that, but once it kicks into gear it’s excitement all the way. There are several exciting sequences, most notably the much-trailed jungle chase, so there’s no disappointment there. It also has the best idea for a sword fight since Pirates of the Caribbean 2. The MacGuffin is decent enough — not as iconic as the Ark or the Holy Grail, perhaps, but it more than serves its purpose. There are fewer quotable lines than you might hope, but the dialogue is still witty. It’s occasionally a bit silly too, but most of it’s in-keeping with the near-B-movie spirit of the franchise.

Indy’s age is playfully acknowledged, but it doesn’t become an excuse — he still gets plenty of action and drives the story. There are nice references to his earlier adventures (including the TV series) and what he’s been doing for the last 20 years. Most fans will appreciate that, I think. One might argue (and some reviews have) that a few actors are underused in their supporting roles, but this is Ford’s film and they’re no worse than, say, Sallah in Raiders and Last Crusade — I doubt they cast John Hurt, for example, and then wrote him a relatively small part. As with the opening image, Spielberg ends the film with another playful beat aimed primarily at fans.

To rank Crystal Skull in relation to the original trilogy, it’s the third best — but that’s behind Raiders, a certified classic, and Last Crusade, one of the first films I ever saw and which I love dearly. Aside from those, it stands head and shoulders above many other action/adventure films. Will it hold up as well as Raiders has in 27 years’ time? Who can say. But right now, it’s damn fine entertainment.

A proper review of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will appear as #32 in the next few days, following my review of Iron Man.