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“We Will Change You, Doctor Jones”: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and a Unified Theory of Indiana Jones…

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a movie with very real and very tangible problems.

Part of the problem is one of simple aesthetics. The original trilogy were products of a very particular moment in the history of American cinema, spanning the eighties. Raiders of the Lost Ark was very much a rollercoaster of a movie, a showcase for practical effects and impressive stunt work. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was built around impressive physical sets, model work and location work. Even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade took a great deal of pride in how tactile this world felt.

Crystal clear.

In contrast, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a product of a transitional decade for Hollywood. It is no coincidence that the film opened in the same summer as blockbusters like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which heralded a new future for crowdpleasing spectacle. While The Dark Knight made a conscious effort to ground its storytelling in practical effects, Iron Man signaled that the digital effects revolution was going to be the cornerstone of the superhero genre.

As such, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a deliberate and conscious step into the uncanny valley. Many of the movie’s most decried action sequences are driven by green screen and computer-generated special effects, standing in start contrast to the weight and mass that defined the earlier set pieces. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. The chase sequence in the Amazon is perhaps the most egregious example, but this detachment from reality is obvious from the early scenes inside the warehouse, as pixels guide our hero and his captors to their destination.

Blowing the roof off.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull exists in another uncanny space, most obviously through the introduction of the character of Mutt Williams. Part of this problem is undoubtedly Shia LeBeouf himself, who has been candid about his work on the film to the point of alienating director Steven Spielberg. Much like it’s easier to recognise the “pre-sequel” of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a prequel with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier now to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a rough draft of a “legacyquel”, like Creed or Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

Of course, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is too clumsy to really work in that way. The film’s closing moments dare to tease the idea of Mutt Williams succeeding Indiana Jones, the wind blowing Jones’ iconic hat into Williams’ clutches. However, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull lacks the courage of its commitment. Jones snatches the hat away at the last minute, prefiguring the way in which Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker would retreat from the idea of passing Star Wars to a new generation.

It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.

There are other ways in which Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like it is caught between two eras. The film’s structure arguably suffers from the production team’s famed attempts to preserve the secrecy of the plot, which even extended to a sting operation and a high-profile lawsuit. The publicity around the film reportedly considered keeping Karen Allen’s return a secret, and the film’s structure conceals the presence of Marion Ravenwood for an hour. It’s a choice that muddies the film’s handling of its themes, denying it the clarity of how Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade handled Henry Jones.

Still, accepting these issues as problems, there is a lot of interesting stuff happening beneath the surface of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In particular, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a very sincere and genuine effort on the part of everybody involved to figure out some grand unified theory of Indiana Jones, separated from the original three films by decades. What does it mean to look back on the trilogy? How has the world changed? How would the character wrap it all up?

It was admittedly a bit of a wash…

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249. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – Indiana Summer 2021 (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Tony Black and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, wrapping up our Indiana Summer, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

In the midst of the Red Scare, veteran archeologist Indiana Jones finds himself embroiled in a Communist plot involving Area 51. The mystery inevitably spirals outwards, the explorer finds himself roped into another adventure that reunites him with his lost love Marion Ravenwood and offers surprising revelations about the adventurer’s family.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On How “The Suicide Squad” Deconstructs Amanda Waller…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of The Suicide Squad, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at one small-but-clever aspect of James Gunn’s superhero sequel.

The character of Amanda Waller is a pop culture archetype. She is an example of the ruthless intelligence operative who will cross whatever line it takes in pursuit of what she believes to be the greater good. Outside of comic books, one need only look at the character of Jack Bauer. Within the modern superhero landscape, the archetype is embodied by Nick Fury. These characters might be edgy or ambiguous, but they are also undeniably cool. Gunn’s approach to Waller in The Suicide Squad is interesting in large part because it rejects that idea of effortless cool in favour of something a lot blunter and more horrific.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: The Mauritanian

The Mauritanian is an odd film in a number of ways.

In some ways, The Mauritanian feels like it has arrived late to the party. Obviously, the War on Terror is still a major defining event of the twenty-first century. Guantánamo Bay is still open and housing forty inmates. It’s possible to trace the xenophobia that defines so much of contemporary American politics back to the War on Terror, most obviously by looking at the countries affected by President Donald Trump’s infamous “travel ban.” So the War on Terror is very much an ongoing concern that merits discussion and exploration.

Maur, Maur, Maur…

However, it is also a period of American history that has been very thoroughly explored in film and television, particularly in the context of prestige awards-season releases. The Hurt Locker won Best Picture a decade ago. Zero Dark Thirty was a major awards contender a few years after that. The War on Terror has been dissected through the lens of forensic introspection in movies like The Report and through broad satire in movies like Vice. As such, any movie hoping to explore the War on Terror exists in the shadow of larger culture.

This is perhaps the biggest issue with The Mauritanian. Director Kevin Macdonald’s earnest exploration of the incarceration and torture of Mohamedou Ould Salahi feels like a movie that should have been released during the early wave of this cinematic excavation. Even allowing for the fact that Salahi was only released five years ago, those five years feel like a very long time. The result of all this is that The Mauritanian feels like a movie displaced in time, feeling like a retread of the earliest films grappling with the topic, like Lions for Lambs.

Interrogating the War on Terror.

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“The Blood Stays on the Blade”: The Birth of a Nation in Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Kundun. This week, we’re looking at Gangs of New York. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s complicated and messy 2002 passion project.

Martin Scorsese had wanted to make Gangs of New York for over thirty years.

The director had reportedly stumbled across a copy of Herbert Asbury’s book while house-sitting for a friend over New Year in 1970. Gangs of New York became one of the projects that Scorsese desperately wanted to make, alongside The Last Temptation of Christ, which had been given to him by Barbara Hershey on the set of Boxcar Bertha. Of course, Scorsese would not get to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York during the seventies. Instead, the implosion of New York, New York would set his plans back years.

Scorsese had reportedly been hoping to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York following the release of New York, New York, when Robert DeNiro convinced him to direct Raging Bull instead. Scorsese would spend the eighties adapting to the collapse of the New Hollywood movement, and would just about manage to get The Last Temptation of Christ produced. He never gave up on Gangs of New York, and the film went through various iterations over the years. It might have starred Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd or Mel Gibson and Willem Dafoe.

When the possibility of making Gangs of New York emerged in the late nineties, it might have seemed like a culmination. As the project lurched closer and closer to actually materialising, it must have seemed like it would be one of Scorsese’s last major motion pictures. After all, Scorsese was almost sixty. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the only two other “movie brats” who were still making high-profile and big-budget films. There was perhaps a sense that Scorsese might just about have this film left in him, before retiring to less mainstream and more esoteric works.

While Scorsese had entered the nineties on a high note with Goodfellas, the films that followed were not as universally welcomed. Roger Ebert complained about “a certain impersonality” in Cape Fear, the film following Goodfellas. The Age of Innocence arrived with a shrug. Casino was treated as highly derivative of Goodfellas, with Peter Travers sighing that “the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.” Kundun sparked a diplomatic incident with China, and was quietly buried by Disney. Bringing Out the Dead felt like a curiosity more than a classic.

Of course, history has been kind to all (or at least most) of those films. Scorsese’s nineties output is recognised in hindsight as a vibrant and important part of his career. Nevertheless, as Gangs of New York slowly and awkwardly forced itself into being, it might have looked like the last swing of the bat from one of the great American directors. A film that had been simmering in the director’s imagination for decades, it might serve as a definitive and concluding statement about the city and the nation that he loved.

More than twenty years after the shutters came down on the New Hollywood movement, Scorsese would finally get to make an epic that was comparable to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Of course, those sorts of projects feel like capstones – Heaven’s Gate famously brought United Artists tumbling down, while Coppola would never direct anything with as much freedom or cultural impact after Apocalypse Now. As such, Scorsese’s long-delayed shot at making his epic passion project seemed like closure.

Looking back at Gangs of New York, this seems absurd. Almost two decades after Gangs of New York, Scorsese is still making films. Scorsese is enjoying larger budgets on films like The Irishman and The Killers of the Flower Moon than he did earlier in his career. If anything, Gangs of New York is a watershed. It is not Scorsese’s epic finale, but is instead the first in a series of epics that includes films like The Aviator or The Wolf of Wall Street. It introduced Scorsese to a young actor who “reignited” his enthusiasm for film making.

Indeed, time has been very kind to Gangs of New York. The film seemed to arrive at a crucial moment, both for Scorsese as director and for the United States as a nation. Gangs of New York offers a snapshot of American history that resonates strongly. It is not so much a historical picture as a dive into the depths of a shared unconscious and an excavation of the scars left on the American psyche. The catchy Oscar-nominated theme song might have boasted that the film was about “the hands that built America”, but the film was decidedly less optimistic in its perspective.

Gangs of New York is a story about the blood that stains those hands, and how history tends to repeat for those who refuse to learn from it.

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New Escapist Column! On “Rogue One” as “Star Wars” for the Twenty-First Century…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine a little while ago, looking at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Like most films, the original Star Wars was a product of its time. It spoke to simmering tensions and traumas related to the late seventies, from lingering atomic anxieties to the horrors of the Vietnam War. However, a lot of time has passed since the original trilogy, and our cultural anxieties have changed over the intervening years. Since the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney, the Star Wars franchise has been fixated and focused on the original trilogy. However, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the only film to make an effort to ask what those tropes and conventions mean moved to the present day.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Spider-Man – Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home cannot help but exist in the shadow of Avengers: Endgame.

Indeed, one of the problems marketing Far From Home was the manner in which the entire emotional premise of the film served as a spoiler for Endgame, which meant that the film had to wait quite late in the game to release its second trailer. This sets up an interesting tension with Far From Home, which finds itself in the the seemingly contradictory position of being both the last movie in the current “phase” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also a film actually being produced by a company other than Marvel Studios.

Masking his feelings.

This weird push-and-pull runs through Far From Home, which seems caught between existing as a coda and epilogue to Endgame and working as a Spider-Man movie in its own right. To a certain extent, this was always going to be a tension within Far From Home, even before Endgame set its sights on becoming the biggest movie of all time. Endgame was always going to exert a gravity on Far From Home, given its plot mechanics and its character decisions. Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, along with director Jon Watts, were always going to be reacting to narrative and character choices that they never made.

As such, the most interesting thing that Far From Home can do is to literalise that tension.

Night Monkey Moves.

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125. V for Vendetta (#153)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta.

Accosted by “finger men” for breaking curfew, Evey Hammond is rescued by a mysterious stranger who only introduces himself as “V.” As Evey finds herself drawn deeper into the world of this violent vaudevillian figure and as she discovers more and more of his plot to topple the country’s totalitarian regime, Evey finds herself wonder whether this masked figure is a vigilante or villain.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 153rd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: 2 Fast 2 Furious

I’m rewatching The Fast and the Furious for a separate project, as solidarity with fellow film critic Jay Coyle for his “Cinema of Experience” project to look at the changing face of cinema in the twenty-first century. He’ll be writing up his account of how the experience of watching movies has changed in the past twenty-or-so years, but I found my rewatch of The Fast and the Furious interesting enough to write a longer-form review of it.

The Fast and Furious franchise exists somewhere in the space between The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious, but is never quite caught on camera.

The Fast and the Furious is a late nineties undercover urban western about lawlessness in turn-of-the-millennium Los Angeles, of the dead end of the American Dream where young men (and occasional women) drive fast cars in circles to nowhere in particular, living their lives “one quarter mile at a time” without any purpose or any escape. It is a moral quagmire, a tribal wasteland in which law and order mean nothing. The film centres on a police officer sent to infiltrate this world of fast cars, who ultimately cannot bring his target to justice – because there is no justice in this empty and nihilistic world.

2 Fast 2 Furious is effectively a soft Miami Vice reboot. It is a bright and colourful thriller which follows former undercover police officer Brian O’Conner and his old friend Ramone Pierce as they are tasked to infiltrate a drug kingpin’s organisation in Miami. It is a much more conventional and delineated film, and also a much less existential. There are clearly defined good guys and bad guys, and O’Conner has absolutely no ethical objection to bringing in this particular criminal. The film is also appreciably brighter, both be virtue of its heavily saturated surroundings and by an increased emphasis on neon.

Watching 2 Fast 2 Furious, there’s a real sense that the production team had no idea what a hypothetical sequel to The Fast and the Furious would look like, only that it should exist… and maybe it should have some cars in it. Indeed, 2 Fast 2 Furious is pointedly at its most ridiculous when the script is forced to shoe-horn the “obligatory racing bits” into a conventional “undercover Miami drug bust movie.” There’s a weird disconnect between the two films, that goes beyond the absence of Vin Diesel.

Even with Paul Walker present and few small continuity references, there’s little to tether 2 Fast 2 Furious to The Fast and the Furious. It recalls the sort of old-fashioned Hollywood cynicism that produced sequels like Die Hard with a Vengeance, when familiar characters would be clumsily bolted on to a completely unrelated script to create a new franchise installment. Of course, with Dom Toretto in the wind, 2 Fast 2 Furious doesn’t even really have that many familiar characters to anchor it. Brian O’Conner was never going to be the franchise’s breakout character, after all. 2 Fast 2 Furious only has the name.

In some ways, the spark that would drive the Fast and Furious franchise is found in neither The Fast and the Furious nor 2 Fast 2 Furious. After all, the later blockbuster installments of the franchise feel like a completely different breed than either film; espionage-style superhero films involving the fate of the world. That spark is found in the gap between The Fast and the Furious nor 2 Fast 2 Furious, in the cynical idea that just about any kind of movie can be a Fast and Furious movie if you stick enough cars in it.

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37. No Country for Old Men (#171)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men.

Lives are thrown into chaos when a drug deal in Texas goes horribly wrong. Llewelyn Moss stumbles across two million dollars in drug money, and finds himself drawn into a world of violence and chaos as cartel hitman Anton Chigurh is on his trail. If this is not the mess, it’ll do ’til the mess gets here.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 171st best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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