Logan Lucky: Movie Review

Logan Lucky is a welcomed return to form from eclectic filmmaker Steven Soderbergh who practically mastered the heist genre with the Ocean’s Trilogy Out of Sight, and The Limey just to name a few. Fresh off his ten-minute retirement and back with a confident vim, Soderbergh’s latest entry is a charming and breezy southern fried caper flick about two red-state brothers who plan to rip off one of the biggest raceways in Trump country.

Like a Country Song: The film follows Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum, in top form), a West Virginia country boy who unfairly lost his construction job due to a football injury that left him with a limp. When times are tough, Jimmy finds solace in a John Denver song and like the best country songs, it’s easy to take lyrics at face value but underneath, there’s a pain there that’s only longing for the simplest comforts in life; something that we all can relate to regardless of class or status. Jimmy is the living epitome of every country song you know: lost a job, lost his wife, and about to lose his daughter. Jimmy’s ex-wife (Katie Holmes) has custody of their pageant-chasing little girl and plans to move out of state with her new husband (David Denman). He spends most nights at the roadside dive where his war vet younger brother Clyde (played with sheer delight by Adam Driver) bartends. Clyde lost his lower left arm in battle and constantly reminds his brother that maybe their lot in life isn’t going to amount to much more than what they’ve got now. Reluctant to accept that, Jimmy concocts a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway just across state line in North Carolina. Soderbergh spends a lot of time with these characters, fleshing out their objectives which help shed any stereotypes we might have of them. They just want their lives to be a bit better than what it is now.

A Well-Oiled Machine: No heist film is complete without the obligatory notion of “Putting a Team Together” and Logan Lucky revels in all the genre trappings like a giddy redneck at a monster truck rally. The Logan brothers count on their hairdress/speed demon sister Mellie (Riley Keough) who knows a thing or two about American made muscle cars and for professional help, they recruit explosive expert Joe Bang (a wonderfully over-the-top Daniel Craig) who delivers what his name suggests. They just have to break him out of jail first, of course, and call on Bang’s own brothers to help them and round out the team. Soderbergh masterfully weaves us in and out of the plot like a pro, pacing the film skillfully, revealing clues and details when he feels he should and even manages to give us strikingly poignant moments amidst the mayhem and trickery. Yet he’s also keenly aware that heist films have the pleasure of living in the gray area where reality and fantasy collide, and with all the joys Logan Lucky throws at us, it can often sacrifice tone and believability for the sake of genre convention (something Soderbergh confidently toys with in all his heist films). But that’s a minor quibble. There’s a lot of great stuff to take in. Tatum, Driver and the cast are at their A game. He gets a juicy, wide-eyed performance out of Craig, complete with a joyful twang. With some rather clever roles for Hilary Swank, Seth McFarlane, Dwight Yoakum and Sebastian Stan, a clever screenplay from the mysterious new screenwriter Rebecca Blunt, and vivid camerawork from Soderbergh himself (as his DP pseudonym Peter Andrews), the whole thing is just too much fun that complaining about minor plotholes and misstep just seem petty.

They’re Callin’ it Ocean’s 7-Eleven: Well into the film, a TV news reporter interviews an eyewitness and, in true Soderbergh self-referential fashion, she literally calls the events as that. It gets a knowing laugh because there’s a familiarity to Logan Lucky’s pacing and confidence that feels like Danny Ocean and his suave set of cronies. Instead of Armani suits and the Bellagio, we get Dungarees and the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The joy of heist films is the very procedural nature of it all; the specificity and the planning. It’s how you go about it that makes it fun and with Logan Lucky, the twists and turns within the confines of the genre are delicious and genuinely funny. You’re in for quite a fun ride.

Logan Lucky is a solid addition to the heist genre due to the deft and proficient directing of Steven Soderbergh who knows this genre better than any of his contemporaries. Despite a few weak plot details, there’s a boldness to the film that’s unabashedly off-the-wall yet amazingly full of heart. Lots of filmmakers make heist films, but only Soderbergh makes them this sublime.

**** 1/2 Stars

Advertisements

Five Underrated Movies of 2016

For all the attention Moonlight, La La Land and Manchester By the Sea are getting as the year’s best films, there’s a ton more cinematic gems in 2016 that are simply overlooked and aren’t getting the love that I believe they deserve. I’m focusing on five narrative features that not only are overlooked but are award-worthy and deserve attention, thus considering them the Most Underrated Films of 2016. Like any year-end list my choices are all up for contention. There’s American Honey, The Handmaiden, High Rise, Swiss Army Man, Green Room, Neon Demon, Little Men, Other People, Midnight Special and a whole slew of others. Deadpool did get Golden Globes love so I’ll let that one slide.

These five films could rival some of the current nominees in various categories, from their solid screenplays to the amazing performances in each film. Yet, they’ve received no love this award season when I feel they should have.

5. Hello, My Name is Doris (Roadside Attractions)

blog_underrated2016_005.jpg

Anchored by a nuanced, layered performance from Sally Field as a lonely office worker who develops a deep infatuation for a younger co-worker (Max Greenfield), this sweet little film could have been a bigger hit if it was released in the early 2000’s when these kinds of films were making heavier plays during awards season. I’ve seen it four times and loved it more per viewing. It’s hilarious, touching, and achingly bittersweet. Sally Field should have at least gotten a nomination for her mesmerizing performance.

4. Sing Street (Weinstein Company)

blog_underrated2016_004.jpg

The recent entry in John Carney’s unofficial music trifecta trilogy (Once and Begin Again as the first two) is set in 1980’s Ireland about a rag-tag group of teenage schoolboys forming a rock band. What I love about Carney’s musical films is he captures the process of music-making so accurately on film, and Sing Street is his most personal. With an irresistible soundtrack and a fresh, talented cast this film needed more love. Instead, it got lost in the mix with an untimely summer release. Thank God Netflix picked it up. Any of the original songs should have been nominated especially the Hall & Oates inspired uptempo tuner “Drive It Like You Stole It” which was robbed of an Original Song Oscar nomination this year.

3. Hologram For a King (Lionsgate)

blog_underrated2016_003.jpg

This choice will anger a few but after seeing the film last summer it surprisingly left a lasting impression all year. It can be frustrating to enjoy a film about, well, frustration and when the premise is basically Waiting For Godot in Saudi Arabia, it can test the patience of even the keenest of moviegoers. Once you peel the veneers though there’s much to explore; from perceptions of culture to discovering love when one is out of their element, both physically and figuratively. The film is framed by a solid performance from the ever dependable Tom Hanks playing a tech salesman who’s been asked to pitch a business proposal to an elusive king. One of the film’s many gifts is the scene-stealing performance of Alexander Black as Yousef, an American educated Saudi cab driver who proves he can hold his own against Hanks. From its stark cinematography to its subtle commentary on international relations, this is a film that I urge people to (re)consider.

2. The Nice Guys (Warner Bros.)

blog_underrated2016_002.jpg

I grew up on a steady diet of Shane Black films (Lethal Weapon, anyone?) and for a majority of last summer, I couldn’t stop raving about this film. A studio picture that’s original(!), kooky, off-the-wall and oozing with just the right amount of sleaze, violence and genuine slapstick. The pitch-perfect chemistry of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe harkens back to those great buddy comedies of yesteryear, a genre Shane Black perfected in the 80’s. Not to mentioned the perfectly curated disco soundtrack, the colorful, unforgettable cast of characters, the spot-on production and costume designs and a byzantine L.A. noir potboiler of a screenplay that’s paced beautifully and seamlessly. This is how good studio pictures used to be and The Nice Guys could have easily been a hit back in the 80’s or 90’s. In my opinion, this is the kind of film studios should be making more of again.

1. A Monster Calls (Focus Features)

blog_underrated2016_001.jpg

This dark, gorgeous and enchanting children’s story about loss and grief is my pick for the most underrated movie of 2016 because it actually had an award campaign going for it. What happened? There’s way too many goodies in this movie that deserve some kind of nod. Patrick Ness, adapting his own novel to the screen, proves he understands the cinematic form. But the true highlight here is the heartbreaking performance of newcomer Lewis MacDougall who wins you from the get-go with his charm and vulnerability. I found his performance far more effective and stronger than Lucas Hedges in Manchester By the Sea. On the surface, the film can easily be mistaken as heavy visual effects fodder for kids but that would be unfair. The VFX is stunning, sure, yet it’s the overall visual cohesiveness at play that’s far more impressive, directed with such assurance by J.A. Bayona (the helmer of the next Jurassic Park installment). Also, MacDougall is surrounded by captivating performances from his adult castmates; Liam Neeson voicing the monster, Felicity Jones as his ailing mother, Sigourney Weaver as his strict grandmother and Toby Kebbell as his estranged father. This is beautiful, unforgettable and heart-wrenching cinema that can be enjoyed by the whole family. That’s rare and A Monster Calls is definitely a film that hopefully grows the following it so deserves.

The 5 Best Shots of 2016

Sometimes it’s the way it was shot.

The best cinematography elevates a film creating indelible, unforgettable images. It’s a pity because the way movies are being enjoyed nowadays can seem to neglect the power of a filmed image. I’m still a firm believer that a single frame of film seen on the big screen doesn’t have the same effect as seeing it on your smartphone. But a great shot can transcend that.

Again to reiterate: great cinematography always creates unforgettable images.

Here are my choices for the five best shots of 2016.

5. Moonlight (Director of Photographer, James Laxton)

moonlight2016_001.jpg

Moonlight obviously takes many directorial styles from Wong Kar-Wai and director Barry Jenkins states in interviews that Chungking Express was a huge inspiration. It’s fascinating that the most devastating scene in the film in my opinion is shot with such clarity and vibrance. Paired with Naomi Harris’ amazing performance and the painful slow-motion as she screams (in silence) to Chiron (Alex Hibbert) just escalates the hurt.

4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Director of Photographer, Greig Fraser)

starwarsrogueone001.jpeg

The last thing you expect from a Star Wars movie (or any well-established franchise for that matter) is the ability to surprise, especially in its cinematic techniques. What makes Rogue One a great addition to the franchise is its ability to ground the Star Wars lore in a gritty world that feels authentic. Fraser films this sci-fi epic like a well-worn war movie, and when the looming Death Star rises above Scarif, it reminds us of its power. Also, wasn’t it great to see Stroomtroopers on a beach?

3. Hell or High Water (Director of Photographer, Giles Nuttgens)

hellorhighwater001.jpg

There are many shots in Hell or High Water that have the Howard Brothers (Chris Pine and an underrated Ben Foster) shot in far mid-shots amidst the dry landscape of modern-day Texas. It’s in those shots that ironically take us deeper into the brothers and their relationship. There’s desperation and abandonment in the world our characters live in. It’s timely and it’s utterly cinematic.

2. La La Land (Director of Photographer, Linus Sandgren)

lalaland001.jpg

Shot in glorious Cinemascope and unabashedly borrowing color schemes and musical motifs (and ahem, character flaws) from Jacques Demy, La La Land isn’t ashamed whatsoever of what kind of film it is. It’s the first time in a long time that Los Angeles looked this good. It’s smart for them to open on this vast freeway opening number, edited to look like one single shot. From here on in, we’re hooked.

1. Arrival (Director of Photographer, Bradford Young)

arrival001.jpg

Perhaps the best cinematography of 2016 goes to Bradford Young’s restraint work in Arrival. Surprisingly, the only visual effects in this shot is the spacecraft but that rolling fog is real and captured on film. Inspired by the great cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Gordon Willis (The Godfather films), Bradford Young isn’t afraid to light naturally and capture film as rich and textured. He isn’t afraid to underexpose and juxtaposing the beauty of light and dark in his shots and Arrival is triumphant work from a young cinematographer who is just getting started.

RUNNER UPS:

Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)
Hail, Caesar! (Roger Deakins)
Jackie (Stéphane Fontaine)
A Monster Calls (Oscar Faura)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Philippe Rousselot)

The Best Original Film Songs in 2016

2016 proved that film and music are inseparable. Songs both original and classic played such a huge part to some of the year’s most memorable cinematic moments. You can’t deny the joy of seeing a gridlocked LA freeway turned into a massive musical theatre opening number in La La Land‘s ‘Another Day of Sun’ or the beautiful rendition of ‘Sweet Child O Mine’ as a proper eulogy in Captain Fantastic. We’re reminded of how Barbara Lewis’ classic ‘Hello Stranger’ in Moonlight will forever be achingly beautiful and Lesley Gore’s hit ‘You Don’t Own Me’ in Suicide Squad always had a sinister streak underneath its angelic verses. Songs will always be cinematic if you pair it with the right elements of filmic storytelling.

Here are my choices for the best original songs written for the screen in 2016, in no particular order.

LA LA LAND (Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment) – “City of Stars”
Music by Justin Hurwitz, Lyrics by Benjamin Pasek & Justin Paul

 

MOANA (Walt Disney Pictures) – “How Far I’ll Go”
Music & Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

 

SING STREET (Weinstein Company) – “Drive It Like You Stole It”
Written by Gary Clark, John Carney and Relish

 

HIDDEN FIGURES (20th Century Fox) – “Runnin'”
Music & Lyrics by Pharrell Williams

 

MISS SHARON JONES (Starz Entertainment) – “I’m Still Here”
Written by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

 

RUNNER UPS:
‘Can’t Stop the Feeling!’ – Trolls
‘Audition’ – La La Land
‘We Know the Way’ – Moana
‘Rules Don’t Apply’ – Rules Don’t Apply
‘Just Like Fire’ – Alice Through the Looking Glass
‘Dance, Rascal, Dance’ – Hello, My Name Is Doris
‘Heathens’ – Suicide Squad
‘The Great Beyond’ – Sausage Party
‘Another Day of Sun’ – La La Land
‘Faith’ – Sing

O Captain, My Captain

It’s always sad when a celebrity passes away and we’ve had some really notable artists leave us too soon just within the past year (Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind). Yet the news of Robin Williams’ death has affected me immensely, more so than I want to admit.

When my little sister told me the news Monday afternoon, it was sheer disbelief. How can a man so full of life (who we’ve now learned was hurting inside) be gone? This man, who played such an integral part of my childhood and contributing to so many life memories–how can he be gone? It’s like losing a close family friend since Robin Williams was exactly that to my family and I. Robin Williams gave us so much laughter and joy that I wish we, as his audience, knew a way to give it right back.

I literally grabbed my Robin Williams blu-rays and started perusing, going through those cinematic moments that made me remember such awesome times. Robin Williams is the single actor that inhabited movies that were highlights of my life, both good and bad. He made me laugh, cry, think and feel. Robin Williams’ movies will forever be vivid landmarks that I need to share a few of them.

As proof of a talented actor and performer, his magic and his talent left an unforgettable impression on me as an actor, director, artist, and more importantly, as a person.

Rest in peace, O Captain, My Captain.

MORK & MINDY (TV Series 1978-1982)

TSDMOAN EC041

As a little kid, I remember my parents laughing hysterically in our Daly City house on Morton Drive watching this show. One memory I have is being sick with a cold and my Mom snuggling me on the couch as we watched Mork & Mindy.

POPEYE (1980)
rw_002

My parents hated this movie, but I was leaning forward, because I loved Popeye growing up.

GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (1987)

rw_003

A late night drive-in near the airport and I was knocked out. I just remember my Mom and my Aunt going to this and every time Adrian Cronauer’s signature “GOOOD MORNING VIETNAM!!” yell would come on, it would wake me up in the backseat. I didn’t get it at the time, but watching it later in life gave me a full appreciation of what this man can do.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989)

rw_004

My oldest sister Jerianne wanted to go to prep school and I remember watching this as a kid thinking prep school was terrible. Yet if we all had Professor Keating as a teacher, it might be awesome. To this day, this movie kills me and has played such a huge part in how I teach now. The first movie I popped on when I heard of Williams’ passing was this and minutes in, I’m balling my eyes out.

HOOK (1991)

rw_005

The movie that I share with my cousins to this day. We quote it. We reenact scenes from it. We can watch this movie over and over and over. Hook bonds my cousins and I together. It’s our movie and Williams’ Pan is unforgettable. Bangarang, indeed.

ALADDIN (1992)

rw_006

What made me fall in love with animation was this movie, mainly because of how animator Eric Goldberg captured Robin Williams manic genius in the art form. One of his best performances. One of my favorite Disney movies. I remember wanting to see the movie so bad and I missed the movie opening day because my parents were busy. I remember politely telling my Mom that I can wait. The next day, she takes me to see it and buys me ever Aladdin-themed toy at the Toys R’Us right beside the theater.

MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993)

Robin Williams In 'Mrs. Doubtfire'

I remember seeing this with my cousins that Black Friday since it came out during Thanksgiving. I remember laughing hysterically and glancing over at my family, my cousins, my aunts and uncles because we took over one whole row! It thrilled me just seeing everyone in my family laughing. This man did that. Again, another movie I share with my cousins. Every time I pass by the Mrs. Doubtfire house in the city, it always puts a smile on my face.

JUMANJI (1995)

rw_011

This movie with all its merits, actually carries a darker place with my family and I. We were going through a tough time with my Grandfather passing away and having to see my parents struggle with their business at the time. Jumanji helped ease some of the real life chaos in our lives and it was comforting to know that Williams was still there for us, through thick and thin.

THE BIRDCAGE (1996)

rw_007

My oldest sister Jerianne and I were stuck visiting relatives in the Poconos back east for a New York trip once. To escape the relatives, we found a movie theatre in town and they were playing this. To this day, my sister and I consider that the highlight of our trip, just laughing together away from the forced politeness of being around distant relatives. Just last month, my Mom and I popped this blu-ray on and we laughed our heads off.

GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997)

rw_008

The first time an actor really moved me and hit me to the core was Robin Williams Oscar-winning performance in this film, which happens to be one of my favorites ever. I remember being a young buck in film school and just being reduced to a puddle on the classroom linoleum floor when I saw this. I remember seeing it with my family, my grandmother and my uncle and aunt and just being so moved by it again. As a filmmaker, the movie is a constant inspiration. As an actor, it’s an example, thanks to Williams heartbreaking performance.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

rw_009

I saw this one afternoon with my sister Jerianne and a friend. By now, I’m a die-hard Robin Williams fan and just remember being so melancholic right after. It was his performance in this movie that came through, despite the Oscar-winning visual effects. It was his melancholy that shone through, and know looking back it, perhaps it was coming from the actor’s soul honestly and truthfully.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006)

rw_012

As we got older and my little sister Jerica grew up, it was rarer for us as a family to see movies together, but I’ll never forget seeing Night at the Museum at the Metreon in IMAX. My parents, my sisters and I wanted to rekindle that family movie night we used to have. We decided to go all out and see this movie on a random night during Christmas vacation. We had a blast and it felt like everything was well in the world.

Robin Williams has surely made more films that made such an impact on me as a performer (Insomnia, One-Hour Photo, just to name a few) and continued to make all of us laugh in whatever movie or TV show he appeared in (Happy Feet, License to Wed) but these are the big ones that I’ll forever hold in my heart. His presence on screen felt real and tangible, as if he were one of my uncles. His roles taught me a lot, perhaps its because he embodied them with full vigor and life.

Thank you, Mr. Williams, for being there throughout my cinematic endeavors. You will truly, truly be missed.

Cinematic Storytelling: August: Osage County

I was fortunate enough to catch the original production of Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer/Tony Award-winning play, August: Osage County. I’ve seen the original Steppenwolf production in Chicago (pre-Broadway) as well as the Oregon Shakespeare production. When news of a film adaptation came, I remember reading in the trades how every A-Lister wanted to be involved in the film version. Now that it’s arrived in its cinematic form, it’s a film well-worth seeing. Sure, the play’s obvious heavy melodrama doesn’t translate as solid on screen as a fan of the play would hope yet the what rises to the top in this film version are the great performances by this amazing cast–a venerable who’s who, with everyone cast perfectly in their roles.

What I wanted to highlight about this film is how director John Wells really didn’t have a lot of opportunity to make the film breathe outside of the confines of the story. Sure, the strange  beauty of the piece is the claustrophobic atmosphere of Violet Weston’s (Meryl Streep, in fine form as always) dreary Oklahoma ranch home. Yet, when he does have the opportunity to show a little cinematic flair, it comes off rather beautifully and subtly–a huge contrast from the bravado of the performances. The film is sprinkled with wide shots of the Plains and old Western murals that truly give the film a much needed scope.

Yet a pivotal moment happens near the climax of the film with eldest daughter Barbara played by Julia Roberts (who gives a career-defining performance). Her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) decides to bring their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) back home to Colorado. At this point in the movie, the themes are fairly obvious (generational sins, mothers/daughters, parenting, etc.) What’s wonderful about this scene is how subtle the transition happens from one family issue to another.

Jean, furious with her mother has daggers for her (1), after the debacle of the previous evenings’ incident. She decides to not speak and simply roll up the passenger car window revealing (2) her mother Barbara, in turmoil. The reflection falls right in front of her daughter’s face. Pure genius. Yet that’s not all. As we shift family issues, the camera pans up and as one car pulls away another arrives (3, 4) transitioning us to the film’s heartbreaking conclusion. It’s also fascinating to see how vehicles play a huge part in helping show the themes in the film.

August: Osage County is peppered with interesting cinematic flairs much like the example I show above. In my opinion it could have used more. See it for the performances.

Back to Bloggin’

One of the things I found myself doing more and more lately, especially last year was writing. Tons of it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been writing ever since I could remember. I’ve written screenplays, short stories, essays and film reviews. After jumping into the world of podcasting last fall with a good friend and fellow filmmaker Sean Totanes, I found myself looking back at my old blog as I researched for whatever the topic of conversation was for that week. I can’t believe I started blogging ten years ago (!) and now here I am–reviving the form and sharing with those interested enough to read them.

I’m also back into production again, and nothing inspires me more than seeing great films. I’m excited for what 2014 brings.

The photo above is of course, my favorite filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh. He’s an inspiration.

2011: A Year In Film

Every year, I find myself immersing myself in entertainment, more so than the previous year and 2011 had some standouts–from movies, music, television to literature. So as usual, this is my yearly recap of what I loved, loathed and learned from the world of movies in 2011.

My 5 Favorite Movies of 2011

1. The Descendants

2. 50/50

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

4. Moneyball

5. The Ides of March 

Honorable Mentions: Horrible Bosses, We Bought a Zoo, X-Men: First Class, The Adventures of Tintin, The Artist, Hugo, Super 8, The Muppets, My Week With Marilyn, Drive, Crazy Stupid Love, Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Attack the Block

My Best Picks for 2011 (Not Award Predictions)

Best Director – Martin Scorcese, Hugo

Best Actor – George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Actress – Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Best Supporting Actor – Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Best Supporting Actress – Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Best Original Screenplay – Will Reiser and Seth Rogan, 50/50

Best Adapted Screenplay – Alexander Payne, Nat Faxton and Jim Rash, The Descendants 

Best Animated FeatureThe Adventures of Tintin 

Best Original Score – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 

Best Original Song – “Life’s A Happy Song” from The Muppets

Best Visual Effects Rise of the Planet of the Apes 

Best Art DirectionHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Best CinematographyWar Horse

Best Costume DesignHugo 

Best EditingThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 

The 5 Worst Movies I Actually Wasted Hours of My Life in 2011

1. Abduction

2. What’s Your Number?

3. Transformers: Dark of the Moon

4. The Hangover Part II

5. Disney’s Prom

Cracking Whip and Wit: Indy IV Delivers

All the Indiana Jones movies open with the famous Paramount Pictures logo dissolving into some mountainous form, be it a South American peak in Raiders of the Lost Ark, an embossed emblem on a Chinese gong in Temple of Doom, or a dry boulder in Utah at the start of The Last Crusade. In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the long-awaited fourth installment in what may be one of the best franchises in movie history, the logo dissolves into a tiny prairie dog hill in Nevada located on the outskirts of Area 51. Perhaps director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas are reminding us at the start of the movie to keep our expectations low despite the arduous wait and growing anticipation we lovers of the series have endured. Still, the first frame of Crystal Skull is reassuring. To our benefit, those involved in resurrecting Indy after a 19-year hiatus have their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks.

Indiana Jones is back and he still kicks ass.

Crystal Skull delivers enough fun proving the naysayers wrong. It doesn’t match the unfairly high expectations Raiders of the Lost Ark
sets forth, which we all know is ultimately impossible. After all, we
are experiencing a movie that Spielberg and Lucas know how to do best. Crystal Skull makes all the imitators pale in comparison. Okay, so there are a few flaws but to complain about Indiana Jones is like complaining that your visit with an old friend went terribly awry because he or she wore the wrong shoes. Indiana Jones and the franchise itself is a throwback to those old-fashioned, B-movie matinee serials. (Buck Rogers, anyone?) The goal is simply to entertain and be swept away to another world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that filmmakers sacrifice quality storytelling. (Raiders, anyone?) Movies of this sort should be fantastical and off-the-wall—relentless in its adventurous spirit and bold in its often-implausible moments. We’ll go for the ride if the ride’s well worth it. These movies demand our imagination. Sadly, that’s the biggest obstacle Indy’s going to have to endure this summer. How can an old-fashioned adventure hero be relevant to the iPod generation, who’s perpetually plugged-in, apathetic and incredulous?

Ironically it’s technology that makes this movie less than stellar. For all it’s old-fashioned sensibilities, the use of CGI in Crystal Skull feel
painfully out of place, taking away the pure, visceral joy of what
makes an Indiana Jones movie—there’s no real, tangible sense of danger here, and the film suffers for it. Also, the dialogue could use a
little polishing. Perhaps screenwriters David Koepp and Jeff Nathanson try too hard to emulate the spirit of the earlier entries.

 

Crystal Skull is one gorgeous set piece after another, with purposefully garish lighting (very reminiscent of Last Crusade)
and out-of-this-world (literally) plot points. It’s now 1957, and the
bad guys are no longer the Nazi’s but the Commies. Dr. Jones is a
tenured professor who partners up with a young student named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) because their good friend Oxley, played by John Hurt, disappears while tracing the origins of this crystal skull—a quartz relic that evil Soviet agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) believes came from an earlier civilization, possibly form another world. On their quest, Indy and Mutt cross paths with one-time flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who also happens to be (spoiler alert!) Mutt’s mother. There’s some healing to be had between Marion and Indy, and perhaps some secrets that need revealing. Throughout the film, we’re jampacked into loads of action, thrilling set pieces and lots of trap doors and hidden clues. The action is relentless. For example, when Spalko and Mutt cross swords above moving vehicles and other obstacles, it brings me back to the glorious action of pre-CGI movies—and I’m not just saying this as a fencer myself. It’s nice to see movies do good old-fashioned stunts again.

Thankfully, there are way too many strong points to overlook the weak ones. The best is Harrison Ford. Even if he’s older and wiser, his whip (and wit) still cracks and finally, Ford shines again in a role he was born to play. Composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn give reliable work, be as they are Indy veterans having worked on all four films now. The supporting cast is great as well, with Cate Blanchett as the evil Ruskie dominatrix Irina Spalko complete with an over-the-top babushka accent. It’s also nice to see Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. Shia LaBeouf tries to keep up with his older counterparts and succeeds most of the time, even if his sensibilities seem a bit too 21st century. His strength has always been playing the young sarcastic, uber-cool know-it-all which LeBeouf doesn’t really get to display here since he’s suppose to be a cool kid in the 1950’s. Speilberg tries to immerse him in the era, even giving him a grand entrance a la Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, complete with the hog, jacket and tilted cap.

 

Indy IV could also be considered a coming-of-middle-age story. There are plenty of over-the-hill jokes about Indy’s age. Besides, Spielberg, Lucas and Ford made the first three well into their thirties. Now they’re in their sixties and still going strong. Perhaps, that’s the coolest thing about this whole Indiana Jones resurrection. Underneath the excitement and brought out by Indy’s constant fatigue and “I’m-getting-too-old-for-this” comments is a celebration of journeys traveled. Those of us old enough to remember experiencing any one of the first Indy movies on the big screen are probably too old to be going around celebrating an iconic character of our youth by gorging on the merchandise and wearing fedora hats at the mall. (Raiders is the movie that made me want to become a filmmaker.) But having Indiana Jones back now that we’re older reminds us that life is full of adventures, no matter how old or young. It’s one thing to be old and another thing to do it the old-fashioned way.

And sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best way.

Welcome back, Dr. Jones. We’ve missed ya.

RATING: B+