Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (2013)

2017 #127
Erik Sharkey | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

If you don’t know the name Drew Struzan, there’s a fair chance you know his work: he’s the poster artist behind the likes of the Back to the Future trilogy, almost everything Indiana Jones related, many iconic Star Wars posters (including the primary art for the prequel trilogy), and so many more. Even when not painted by Drew himself, his style has been a major influence on blockbuster posters across the board, even in today’s era of Photoshopped collages. Nonetheless, you may wonder if the topic can really support a feature-length documentary. How much is there to say? Turns out, plenty.

It starts out, as the title might suggest, in the form of a biography — rather than just looking at Struzan’s famous posters, it talks about his days as a struggling artist; literally starving, choosing to spend his limited money on paint rather than food. Once it reaches his move into film posters it goes more topically, covering a series at a time. He started on B-movies, which led to doing a poster for Star Wars’ 1978 re-release, which led to Indiana Jones, which was his big breakthrough: his poster for Temple of Doom established him as the Indy artist, and he went on to do video covers, book covers, and the rest.

Painting Menace

Despite the biographical start, the film is really an appreciation, if that were a genre, but a well-deserved one. There are stories about how the posters were commissioned, or designed, or painted, or whatever, but also about their impact, effect, and significance, and what it’s like for filmmakers to work with Struzan. In that regard the list of interviewees is impressive, including the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and more. Their presence speaks not only to the awe-inspiring people Struzan has done posters for, but also how much they admire him. As Spielberg says, he was trying to make a movie that would live up to the art they’d later commission from Drew.

Movie posters are just advertisements, really; certainly in the minds of executives — I mean, why else are the Marvel ones overloaded with every possible character and location featured in the movie? But to the public they’re more than that. Michael J. Fox makes the point very well right at the start of this film: the poster is the first part of the story; it’s where the film begins for the audience. There’s definite truth to that — the ad creates an expectation, and the resultant film has to match it. With Struzan’s work, the bar was never set higher.

4 out of 5

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Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016)

2016 #162
Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

You may have heard about this: in 1982, a group of teenagers decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot, starring themselves. It was a project that ended up filling their whole adolescence, filming scenes here and there every summer for years. Decades later, their amateur recreation (known nowadays as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation) was uncovered by director Eli Roth, who passed it to Harry Knowles to screen at a film festival he organises, and it began to gain cult notoriety. Eventually, that new appreciation led to the guys reuniting in an attempt to crowdfund production of the one scene they were never able to shoot originally. This documentary tells the stories of both the original production and the attempt to complete it.

It’s a great tale, but unfortunately it’s told in a really sloppily made documentary. The narrative is a complete jumble — it jumps in and out of stories all over the place, getting distracted by something else before looping back around. Exposition and setup are bungled, leaving the viewer constantly playing catch-up and trying to piece things together. It throws in general observations mid-film that really belong in an introduction or conclusion. It goes back and forth in time at will — presumably someone thought they’d structured it to tell the parallel stories of the original project and the 2014 shoot, but the editing isn’t clear enough to support that structure. Interviews are cut to shreds, leaving soundbite-sized snippets that often fade out while the person’s still talking, just moving away without letting them finish.

Some people never grow up...

As a viewer, you endure all of this because the underlying story is so good, but there’s a better film to be made here — one that tells the story more clearly, that better draws out the characters of the people involved, the psychology of what they’re doing, and any latent thematic points too. I mean, what these guys did is extraordinary in its dedication, but it’s also completely bizarre. Why did they start it? What does it say about them, or their lives, or maybe even the human condition? And it does say something, I’d wager — you can almost glimpse it around the edges and in the corners of the documentary, but it rarely comes close to actually exploring it. There is a section on the kids’ shitty home lives — that’s something they all seemed to share — and how the Raiders project was a refuge. At this point the editing calms down and it’s briefly very good. If the whole film had displayed that same clarity, it would merit a higher rating.

As it stands, Raiders! has a brilliant story to tell, meaning it’s worth watching to learn about that, but I yearned for it to be told better.

3 out of 5

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #72

The Return of the Great Adventure.

Also Known As: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Country: USA
Language: English (and German, Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic & Nepali)
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: A (1981) | PG (1987)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 12th June 1981
UK Release: 30th July 1981
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Witness)
Karen Allen (Animal House, Starman)
Paul Freeman (The Long Good Friday, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie)
Ronald Lacey (Take a Girl Like You, Red Sonja)
John Rhys-Davies (The Naked Civil Servant, The Lord of the Rings)

Director
Steven Spielberg (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn)

Screenwriter
Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Bodyguard)

Story by
George Lucas (THX 1138, Return of the Jedi)
Philip Kaufman (The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Right Stuff)

The Story
1936: adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the US Army to retrieve the mythical Ark of the Covenant, which they believe is on the verge of being uncovered in Egypt, before the Nazis can get their grubby mitts on it.

Our Hero
Professor of archeology, expert on the occult, and obtainer of rare antiquities, Indiana Jones. Good with a whip; not good with snakes.

Our Villains
Dr. René Belloq, essentially the evil Indy: a fellow archeologist with fewer scruples, who often takes credit for Indy’s hard work and is now in bed with the Nazis. They’re most memorably represented by creepy Gestapo agent Toht, played by Ronald Lacey, who was cast because he reminded Spielberg of Peter Lorre.

Best Supporting Character
The daughter of Indy’s mentor, and his one-time love, Marion Ravenwood, who’s roped in because she happens to possess an artefact with a clue to the Ark’s location. Feisty and capable of holding her own (some of the time, anyway), it’s a shame she didn’t appear in the initial sequels — at Lucas’ insistence, apparently (he also kept her out of the spin-off novels). She eventually returns in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the only character from the first three films to be brought back for that adventure (besides Indy, obv.)

Memorable Quote
Sallah: “Indy, why does the floor move?”
Indiana: “Give me your torch… Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

Memorable Scene
Goodness, where do we start? Well, how about the start! Having made his way safely through a boobytrapped cave, Indy switches a bag of sand for the idol he’s come to retrieve. Unfortunately the trap is not fooled, and Indy has to run out as the place collapses around him and all the traps are triggered — including, most famously, a giant rolling boulder.

Write the Theme Tune…
It’s only one of the greatest movie main themes of all time. Composed by John Williams (of course) it’s technically called The Raiders March, and is a combination of two ideas Williams wrote for Jones’ theme that Spielberg suggested be put together to make one piece.

Technical Wizardry
The film is naturally packed with stunts, one of the most memorable being when Indy is dragged under and out behind a moving truck. To achieve it safely, more clearance was created under the truck by constructing one that was higher than normal and digging out the centre of the road. The shot was filmed at 20fps, lower than the standard 24, so that when played back the truck appeared to be moving faster. The feat was performed by stuntman Terry Leonard, but Harrison Ford was actually dragged behind the truck for some shots. When asked if he was worried, Ford replied, “No. If it really was dangerous, they would have filmed more of the movie first.”

Truly Special Effect
The climax, when the Ark is opened, was a field day for ILM. Techniques used include “animation, a woman to portray a beautiful spirit’s face, rod puppet spirits moved through water to convey a sense of floating, a matte painting of the island, and cloud tank effects to portray clouds.” Plus the villains’ heads melt (a gelatine and plaster model exposed to a heat lamp), collapse (a hollow model with the air sucked out), and explode (which nearly landed the film with an R rating).

Making of
Have you heard the one about the scheduled sword fight and everyone being ill? You have? Oh, okay then.

Next time…
The film was a massive success, so has spawned tonnes of media. Primarily, three direct sequel films, with a fifth set for 2019. Then there’s the three-season TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, 13 adult novels, 33 Young Indiana Jones novels, 11 “choose your own adventure”-style books, eight German novels (which have never been translated into English), numerous comic books, and 19 computer games, including nine with original storylines and two Lego Indiana Jones games. Also, a stunt show at Walt Disney World in Florida based on Raiders that has been running for 27 years. Whew!

Awards
5 Oscars (Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound, Visual Effects, Special Achievement in Sound Effects Editing)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Cinematography, Score)
1 BAFTA (Production Design/Art Direction)
6 BAFTA nominations (Film, Supporting Artist (Denholm Elliott), Cinematography, Editing, Music, Sound)
7 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Harrison Ford), Actress (Karen Allen), Director, Writing, Music, Special Effects)
2 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Paul Freeman), Costumes)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Yes, it’s as entertaining as you have heard. Maybe more so. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, in fact, about as entertaining as a commercial movie can be. What is it? An adventure film that plays like an old-time 12-part serial that you see all at once, instead of Saturday-to-Saturday. It’s a modern Thief of Baghdad. It’s the kind of movie that first got you excited about movies when you were a kid. (Translation for today’s children: It’s better than anything on TV.)” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“Spielberg and George Lucas had, in the same year, rewritten the rules of the science fiction genre; Lucas with Star Wars and Spielberg with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but what could they do together? Greatness, it turns out. Their contribution: Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the best, most exciting, most brilliantly written action movies of all time. It’s fun, it has a great sense of wonder and adventure. It’s scary, it’s bloody, it’s violent but you never come away feeling unclean. It has a hero, Indiana Jones, who is fallible but not a wimp. […] I can talk all day about Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I must simply conclude that the movie is just plain fun” — Jerry, armchaircinema

Verdict

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg teamed up for the first time here, recycled elements from movies beloved in their youth, and produced something new and exciting that is still a reference point for blockbusters 35 years later. (We’re getting homages to homages now, aren’t we? Weird.) It’s pretty much a perfect adventure movie: relentlessly paced, packed with action, lightened with humour, full of likeable heroes, who are brave and competent but also a little bit flawed, and hissable villains, with scene after scene of imaginative situations and fabulously staged derring-do. It’s perfectly distilled pulp adventure, and pure cinematic entertainment.

Many Bothans… died to bring us #73.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #45

The man with the hat is back.
And this time he’s bringing his dad.

Country: USA
Language: English, German & Greek
Runtime: 127 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 24th May 1989 (USA)
UK Release: 30th June 1989
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Harrison Ford (Blade Runner, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Sean Connery (Dr. No, The Hunt for Red October)
Denholm Elliott (Brimstone & Treacle, A Room with a View)
John Rhys-Davies (The Living Daylights, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)
Alison Doody (A View to a Kill, We Still Kill the Old Way)
Julian Glover (For Your Eyes Only, We Still Steal the Old Way)

Director
Steven Spielberg (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

Screenwriter
Jeffrey Boam (The Dead Zone, Lethal Weapon 2)

Story by
George Lucas (Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, Strange Magic)
Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple, Max)

“Pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue”, according to Spielberg, but not credited
Tom Stoppard (Empire of the Sun, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead)

The Story
When an old professor goes missing while searching for the Holy Grail, there’s only one man to track him down: his son, Indiana Jones. With his father’s cryptic diary as a guide, Indy embarks on a race against the Nazis to be the first to find the Grail.

Our Heroes
Indiana Jones, the fedora-wearing, whip-wielding, quip-delivering, snake-fearing, Nazi-fighting archeologist adventurer. This time joined by his dad, Henry — who still has it with the ladies, apparently.

Our Villains
A pair of deceptive deceivers: respectable American businessman Walter Donovan sets both Indy and his father in search of the Holy Grail, but he’s secretly working with the Nazis because he wants the prize for his own selfish ends. Then there’s Dr Elsa Schneider, who seduces both Joneses (bit creepy) and is also secretly working with the Nazis. But might she come good in the end…?

Best Supporting Character
Indy’s dad, Henry Sr, is along for the ride this time. Sean Connery was always Spielberg’s first choice for the role, as an inside joke that Indy’s father is James Bond. (Not literally, obviously.) The father-son sparring is one of the highlights of the film.

Memorable Quote
Prof. Henry Jones: “I’ve got to tell you something.”
Indiana Jones: “Don’t get sentimental now, dad. Save it ’til we get out of here.”
Prof. Henry Jones: “The floor’s on fire, see? And the chair.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #1
“He chose… poorly.” — Grail Knight

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #2
“Nazis. I hate these guys.” — Indiana Jones

Memorable Scene
Any time you get Ford and Connery playing off each other is fantastic, but the scene where they’re tied back-to-back to be interrogated by the Nazis, then have to escape the burning fortress (see: memorable quote) is one of the best and (importantly, for this category) most memorable.

Technical Wizardry
In previous films, computer-generated effects elements had been printed onto film and composited into final shots the old fashioned way, using optical printers. For Donovan’s death scene in Last Crusade, several states of the character’s decay were created with make-up and puppets, filmed, then ILM scanned the footage and morphed the takes together digitally. This was the first time film had been scanned, digitally manipulated, and then output back to film as a finished shot.

Truly Special Effect
The “leap of faith” trial — a bridge rendered ‘invisible’ with the help of false perspective — doesn’t make a great deal of sense if you stop and think about it, but is a very effective special effect nonetheless. It’s actually a model bridge in front of a painted background (because it was cheaper than building a full-size set), with Harrison Ford shot on bluescreen and composited in. (More details on how it was done can be found in this article about the film’s post-production.)

Letting the Side Down
Conversely, some of the other special effects have aged pretty badly — see-through planes and that kind of thing. On the bright side, Lucas never tried to Special Edition it.

Making of
According to Robert Watts, who was a producer on the first three Indys, “The Last Crusade was the toughest Indiana Jones picture to do because of its scope. First of all, we had virtually every form of transportation people used during that period, planes, trains, boats, cars, horses, zeppelins, bicycles, motorbikes with sidecars, everything except skis. Also, we shot the movie in Spain, London, Venice, Jordan, Austria, Germany, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, California and, finally, Texas. So it was quite a world tour.”

Previously on…
Indiana Jones made his debut in Best Picture nominee Raiders of the Lost Ark. He returned in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which used to be regarded as The Bad One (despite having its fans), until 2008…

Next time…
Some people would be very keen to tell you that Last Crusade is the last Indiana Jones movie, but, of course, they’re wrong: 19 years later, everyone returned for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which certainly isn’t the best Indy movie but quite probably isn’t as bad as you remember. They’ll be doing the same again in a couple of years for a fifth adventure. There are further adventures of Indy in the three-season TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (I don’t know what the consensus on it is, but I used to love it). In print, Indy is the star of 13 adult novels, plus eight German novels that have never been translated into English, 11 “choose your own adventure”-style books, 33 Young Indiana Jones novels, and numerous comic books. There have been eight computer games based on the films, two Lego Indiana Jones games, and nine games with original storylines, at least one of which, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, is a classic (which I’ve just discovered is available on Steam. It might be re-play time…)

Awards
1 Oscar (Sound Effects Editing)
2 Oscar nominations (Score, Sound)
3 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (Sean Connery), Sound, Special Effects)
4 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Actor (Harrison Ford), Writing, Costumes)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Take a good look at this movie. In fact, go back four or five times and take four or five good looks. In this imperfect world, you’re not likely to see many manmade objects come this close to perfection. Director Steven Spielberg has taken all the best elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark (with little of the mystical mumbo jumbo) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (without the gratuitous violence and child abuse) and combined them into an adventure film that is fast, muscular, playful, warmhearted and sheer pleasure.” — Ralph Novak, People

Score: 88%

What the Public Say
Raiders is lots of fun but it didn’t have the depth of characterization that The Last Crusade brings to Indy (in my opinion) and Steven Spielberg himself said that he enjoyed having the opportunity to do a real character study in the third movie. […] it’s just amazing to see [Sean Connery] and Harrison Ford play off one another. I love the subtle softening of their relationship […] There’s a depth to their father-son relationship that goes beyond mere banter and friendly insults” — Eva, Coffee, Classics, & Craziness

Verdict

I know we’re all supposed to love Raiders most, but I think Last Crusade is actually my favourite Indy movie. After the darkness of Temple of Doom, and the resultant criticism, Spielberg and co set out to make a lighter adventure more in the vein of Raiders. It’s possibly the funniest Indy movie because of that, but without tipping over into all-out comedy, thanks to plenty of the requisite derring-do, an almost Bondian globetrotting storyline, and a high-stakes climax, complete with gruesome death for the villain. Spielberg once said it was his favourite Indy movie too, so I’m in good company.

#46 will be… the first of two films whose title begins with “J”, only one of which is directed by Steven Spielberg…

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

2009 #63
Kerry Conran | 102 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG

Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowIf the Indiana Jones series was a bit more sci-fi (even than Crystal Skull, that is), it might be rather like this. First time writer-director Kerry Conran evokes ’40s cinema serials more thoroughly than Lucas or Spielberg ever dared with a globe-hopping tale of a mad scientist’s giant robots doing all sorts of damage in a quest for… well, that would spoil the ending.

In the telling, Sky Captain is every inch a Boy’s Own adventure, packing every facet of that genre of storytelling into its brisk running time. There’s secret bases, ray guns, giant robots, flying aircraft carriers, snow-bound Himalayan treks, creature-infested secret jungle islands, huge underground bases, space rockets, planes that are also submarines, tree bridges over impossibly deep gorges… If it’s part of the genre, it’s probably here, and all finally executed with ’00s-level special effects. In some respects it does move between set pieces and locations in an episodic fashion, but then that’s more a trait of the films it emulates — i.e. episodic serials — than a flaw in Conran’s plotting.

Still, some might view Sky Captain as little more than an exercise in filmmaking — it was one of the first movies to be shot entirely on blue-screen, around the same time as Sin City and a couple of others. There’s more to it than that, but it’s also hard to ignore the style this creates. The shooting process is far from perfect if one were trying to recreate real life, but here the whole look is so stylised that it hardly matters. The period setting is nicely evoked, combining myriad influences into an intricately realised retro-future style, coupled with a lovely sepia sheen over everything. It’s beautifully lit, while individual shots and editing are frequently reminiscent of a style from the ’40s (and earlier). Again, Conran is being deliberately evocative of films of the period, rather than a modern film set then; more La Antena than Star Wars.

Another much-discussed feat of technology is the resurrection of Sir Laurence Olivier as the film’s villain. Unfortunately, his brief appearance is underwhelming. Perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to modern technology resurrecting deceased actors for ‘new’ performances (not that it happens that often); but then again, what was done with Oliver Reed for Gladiator — four years before this — seemed more impressive than the small amount of hologram we see here, even though the digitally created shots were equally brief. It’s a shame, because using Olivier for this key role is quite neat, certainly better than casting a glorified extra. In fairness, then, it’s a part so small that very few appropriately-big names would agree to it, which perhaps permisses resurrecting Olivier after all

Among the real performances, the acting is a bit flat. Perhaps this is deliberately in-keeping with the emulated style, though Jude Law is always this bad so maybe not. Similar comments could be made of the screenplay, if one were being unkind. What it does manage is a good amount of humour — an essential part of the genre, as any Indiana Jones fan will tell you, but it’s by no means guaranteed in these over-serious times (thankfully, the likes of Star Trek and Transformers are occasionally breaking down this barrier to fun).

Breaking free of any self-imposed period constraints, Conran also produces a few exciting action sequences, such as a plane chase through the streets of New York. It’s incredibly hard to create spectacle these days, but Sky Captain occasionally manages it. There are also lots of fun little references to other things for the keen viewer to pick out. 1138 crops up, inevitably, but my favourite is some dialogue lifted from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.

Sky Captain is a healthy dose of retro-styled fun. Perhaps that makes it an acquired taste, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

4 out of 5

My review of the proof-of-concept short that inspired Sky Captain can be read here.

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.