John Williams

Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)

Lincoln is a political thriller. The vast majority of the film concerns the 13th Amendment and Lincoln’s attempts to get it through the House of Representatives. When Lincoln isn’t pursuing this story (or when director Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s tangential subplots are too thin), the artifice starts showing. Not even Daniel Day-Lewis, in a phenomenal performance as Lincoln, can survive all of them. He survives most of them, but not when Spielberg brings up the John Williams schmaltz.

At its peaks, Lincoln makes one forget history and be enthralled at watching it unfold. It’s discouraging Spielberg and Kushner didn’t apply this same vigor to the finish. Lincoln is not a biopic; it’s inexplicable why Spielberg felt the need to include the assassination… other than the viewer’s expectation.

He should have left well enough alone, because he fumbles the end. And the second ending. And especially the third.

The film has an all-star cast of recognizable faces if not names. James Spader is the best; he’s allowed the most freedom. Both David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones are excellent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is lost–his role’s useless in actual narrative. Jackie Earle Haley doesn’t do well either. Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie are fantastic as the villains.

Sally Field is Lincoln‘s other big misstep. The other actors, even the lesser performances, transcend their celebrity. Field embraces hers, apparently with Spielberg’s full blessing. It’s a goofy casting choice.

Lincoln is often great, but not consistently. Day-Lewis is, however.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Tony Kushner, based in part on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), James Spader (W.N. Bilbo), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), John Hawkes (Robert Latham), Jackie Earle Haley (Alexander Stephens), Bruce McGill (Edwin Stanton), Tim Blake Nelson (Richard Schell), Joseph Cross (John Hay), Jared Harris (Ulysses S. Grant), Lee Pace (Fernando Wood), Peter McRobbie (George Pendleton), Gulliver McGrath (Tad Lincoln), Gloria Reuben (Elizabeth Keckley), Jeremy Strong (John Nicolay), Michael Stuhlbarg (George Yeaman), Boris McGiver (Alexander Coffroth), David Costabile (James Ashley), Stephen Spinella (Asa Vintner Litton) and Walton Goggins (Clay Hutchins).


The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Steven Spielberg)

Even though The Lost World: Jurassic Park is pretty bad, it features some of Steven Spielberg’s more interesting work as a director. It’s a b genre picture, with a huge budget and Spielberg directing it. It even has a cute King Kong reference. It’s a singular film in Spielberg’s filmography—even when he does a terrible sequel like Temple of Doom, it’s not as interesting. None of those statements mean one should see The Lost World. It’s tiring and boring; all of the action sequences are stale.

One problem is the CG technology. It’s gotten away from Spielberg. He can do pretty much whatever he wants, so he doesn’t have to think about it anymore and so he doesn’t. The film rushes from CG sequence to sequence, but nothing interesting. This Jurassic Park is intent on being dumb, not even giving the pretense of intelligence. Jeff Goldblum handles it pretty well, but his character is nowhere near as amusing as before.

Another problem is the script. While Spielberg may be responsible for Vince Vaughan’s casting and performance, David Koepp wrote some terrible lines for the character. But Koepp has even more problems—he doesn’t have a story. He’s got Vanessa Lee Chester pointlessly running around (as Goldblum’s daughter); she doesn’t even have a real action sequence.

There’s some good acting—Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard and Richard Schiff are all excellent. Howard’s a great worm.

Even the John Williams score is peculiar.

But being strange doesn’t make it worthwhile.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by David Koepp, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Gerald R. Molen and Colin Wilson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jeff Goldblum (Dr. Ian Malcolm), Julianne Moore (Dr. Sarah Harding), Pete Postlethwaite (Roland Tembo), Richard Attenborough (John Hammond), Vince Vaughn (Nick Van Owen), Arliss Howard (Peter Ludlow), Vanessa Lee Chester (Kelly Curtis Malcolm), Peter Stormare (Dieter Stark), Harvey Jason (Ajay Sidhu), Richard Schiff (Eddie Carr), Joseph Mazzello (Tim Murphy) and Ariana Richards (Lex Murphy).


Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg)

Two big things I noticed about Jurassic Park. First, it’s still a superior use of CG. It really shows how digital effects do not get better with technology or budget or whatever; being used by a good filmmaker makes all the difference.

And Spielberg does a fine job with Jurassic Park. It’s an incredibly impersonal film, which the second thing I noticed really showcases. Sam Neill’s protagonist is so shallow, even Bob Peck’s character—who gets no back story—comes off deeper. Some of the problem is with Neill’s performance. He can’t keep his American accent—in fact, at the beginning it seems like he’s supposed to be Australian, but then he starts suppressing it, only to then let it come through. Laura Dern’s character is even more shallow, but she manages to make the character work with her performance. Neill gets better towards the end, when he finally stops whining about not liking kids.

Once the film gets going, it has a fantastic pace. Spielberg’s direction is strongest here in that regard—he knows how to make the film work and does; he also knows how to get good performances out of almost all the cast. Neill isn’t really his fault.

Besides Peck, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Ferrero and Samuel L. Jackson are standouts. Richard Attenborough teeters between endearing and good. He sells his most important scene.

The John Williams score is excellent, the Dean Cundey photography is good (but not singular).

Jurassic Park’s a fine, pseudo-smart popcorn movie.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp, based on the novel by Crichton; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Gerald R. Molen; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Sam Neill (Dr. Alan Grant), Laura Dern (Dr. Ellie Sattler), Jeff Goldblum (Dr. Ian Malcolm), Richard Attenborough (John Hammond), Bob Peck (Robert Muldoon), Martin Ferrero (Donald Gennaro), Joseph Mazzello (Tim Murphy), Ariana Richards (Lex Murphy), Samuel L. Jackson (Ray Arnold), B.D. Wong (Henry Wu) and Wayne Knight (Dennis Nedry).


Presumed Innocent (1990, Alan J. Pakula)

I could, but will not, get into the idea Presumed Innocent is what studios were making as popular summer entertainment in the nineties. It’s simply to depressing to start that discussion.

Instead, I’ll start with the film’s strengths. Even though the second half is very strong–how did Raul Julia not get nominated for this one (or Bonnie Bedelia for that matter)–Presumed Innocent is strongest at the beginning, before the trial. The reason is numbers–the second half has, principally, star Harrison Ford, Julia, Bedelia, Paul Winfield and a little John Spencer and a glimpse of Bradley Whitford.

The first half has Ford, Bedelia, Spencer with a lot more screen time and then Brian Dennehy in a great performance. As the star, Ford is somehow perfect. He’s this leading man surrounded by character actors, but his character is right for Ford. Seeing him opposite the other actors, the approach is unquestionable.

Of course, it’s Alan J. Pakula directing with Frank Pierson helping him with the script so there’s always going to be a certain baseline of quality. Pakula resists any glamorized composition; the film looks as grimy and downtrodden–with a couple notable exceptions, Ford and Bedelia’s home in the suburbs and Dennehy’s office after he’s betrayed Ford.

The problem is mostly too much story in not enough running time. The beginning is either too long or too short, same as the middle, same as the end.

And also Greta Scacchi. She’s not in it much, but she’s lousy.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alan J. Pakula; screenplay by Frank Pierson and Pakula, based on the novel by Scott Turow; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Evan A. Lottman; music by John Williams; production designer, George Jenkins; produced by Sydney Pollack and Mark Rosenberg; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Harrison Ford (Rusty Sabich), Brian Dennehy (Raymond Horgan), Raul Julia (Sandy Stern), Bonnie Bedelia (Barbara Sabich), Paul Winfield (Judge Larren Lyttle), Greta Scacchi (Carolyn Polhemus), John Spencer (Lipranzer), Joe Grifasi (Tommy Molto), Tom Mardirosian (Nico Della Guardia), Sab Shimono (‘Painless’ Kumagai) and Bradley Whitford (Jamie Kemp).


Superman (1978, Richard Donner), the director’s cut

If watching Richard Donner’s director’s cuts have taught me one thing, it’s Donner probably shouldn’t have final cut. His director’s cut of Lethal Weapon, for example, is atrocious.

He adds about nine minutes to Superman and, much like Coppola’s revision of Apocalypse Now, it’s a testament to the original film it can weather the additions. For the most part, Donner’s additions are small–I think the longest sequence is Superman versus Lex Luthor’s weapon gadgets–but these additions all go into the rather iconic sequences at the beginning of the film. In other words, Donner intrudes on the film in progress… it’s kind of like talking during the movie (or a big CG Jabba the Hutt all of a sudden appearing).

Worse, director’s cut editor Michael Thau can’t compare to original editor Stuart Baird (Superman‘s just an exquisitely edited film, an aspect I don’t think it ever gets recognized). And don’t get me started on the awful new sound mix.

But it can’t muck it up.

If anything, the director’s cut just shows Superman is bigger than the director and his troubles with the producers. The elements–the cast, the script, the effects crew and John Williams–are in place. Donner does a great job directing the picture, no doubt, but it’s never fit in his filmography. He’s never made anything half as good as a film and nothing a quarter as good as a director.

So, even though none of the additions add anything, Superman succeeds.

Wonderment outweighs bloating.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, story by Puzo, from characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; creative consultant, Tom Mankiewicz; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Stuart Baird and Michael Ellis; music by John Williams; production designer, John Barry; produced by Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Christopher Reeve (Superman/Clark Kent), Ned Beatty (Otis), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Glenn Ford (Pa Kent), Trevor Howard (First Elder), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jack O’Halloran (Non), Valerie Perrine (Eve Teschmacher), Maria Schell (Vond-ah), Terence Stamp (General Zod), Phyllis Thaxter (Ma Kent), Susannah York (Lara), Jeff East (Young Clark Kent), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Sarah Douglas (Ursa) and Harry Andrews (Second Elder).



This film is also discussed in Sum Up | Superman.

The Towering Inferno (1974, John Guillermin)

For a disaster movie to succeed, I suppose all it really has to do is keep you interested for its running time. The Towering Inferno runs almost three hours and manages that task, so much so, the ending seems a little abrupt. It’s not like the first act breezes by, either. In fact, it only makes it through the first act because of the goodwill the opening credits–with an amazing John Williams piece–earn. There’s maybe five minutes of setup they could have done without, to get to the fabulous first death sequence a little earlier.

The worst performance in the film is probably Richard Chamberlain, but even he’s solid. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman are good, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner–Norman Burton’s excellent in a small part. Faye Dunaway and William Holden appear busy. Even O.J. Simpson is good–the film’s treatment of race is particularly interesting, as Simpson plays the chief of security (and Felton Perry later shows up as a senior fireman).

The mattes all hold up and the action sequences, until the fire’s put out at the end (why do the flames recede before the water hits them?), do too. It’s well-made nonsense, with the majority of the cast managing not to look embarrassed.

Of particular interest is how Gullermin and cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp shoot the dramatic scenes. It’s not like a seventies movie at all, instead aping Cinemascope methods.

It’s a shame the genre failed. The Towering Inferno is a fine diversion.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on a novel by Richard Martin Stern and a novel by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson; director of photography, Fred J. Koenekamp; edited by Carl Kress and Harold F. Kress; music by John Williams; production designer, William J. Creber; produced by Irwin Allen; released by Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox.

Starring Steve McQueen (Fire Chief Michael O’Hallorhan), Paul Newman (Doug Roberts), William Holden (Jim Duncan), Faye Dunaway (Susan), Fred Astaire (Harlee Claiborne), Susan Blakely (Patty Duncan Simmons), Richard Chamberlain (Roger Simmons), Jennifer Jones (Liselotte Mueller), O.J. Simpson (Harry Jernigan), Robert Vaughn (Senator Gary Parker), Robert Wagner (Dan Bigelow), Susan Flannery (Lorrie), Sheila Allen (Paula Ramsay), Norman Burton (Will Giddings), Jack Collins (Mayor Robert Ramsay), Don Gordon (Fireman Kappy), Felton Perry (Fireman Scott), Gregory Sierra (Carlos), Ernie F. Orsatti (Fireman Mark Powers) and Dabney Coleman (Deputy Chief #1).


Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005, George Lucas)

This movie got good reviews, right? I mean, I know Episode I got good reviews, but this one did too, right? I suppose the CG is better than before–except for Yoda, who’s desperate for a good puppeteer–and the action sequences are a tad more engaging. The space battles, mostly. The actual lightsaber fight scenes are terrible. Lucas never establishes what makes a good… lightsaber-er. I mean, does one have to be a strong Jedi to do it or can a mediocre Jedi simply be good at it? The lightsaber fights aren’t much fun because it’s impossible to tell if the person winning is overcoming the odds or not.

But besides the improved CG, there’s absolutely nothing to recommend the movie. Even Ewan McGregor, who technically isn’t bad, doesn’t have any actual good scenes. Oh, I forgot about the backdrops–the composite backdrops, when Lucas sticks the actors in front of green screens and CG backdrops–are awful. They look worse than a matte painting in a Roger Corman movie.

Back to the acting–hopefully I’ll get around to script at some point, but it might be hard to muster the enthusiasm–Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is a constant battle between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman for worst performance in a galaxy far, far away (and this one). While Christensen is abjectly terrible, Portman’s somehow even worse–it’s a shocking statement, but true. Maybe it’s because Christensen’s in a lot of the movie, so the viewer gets worn down. Portman’s only in a handful of scenes–which doesn’t make much sense in terms of Lucas’s “sweeping” narrative–and she’s like a infrequent, deep stab into the chest.

The supporting cast is no better. Ian McDiarmid’s awful, Samuel L. Jackson’s apparently turning in a comic performance. No one–not even George Lucas–could think Jackson was giving a good performance. Actually, I think Jimmy Smits might give one of the film’s better performances.

Too bad, I got to the script. It starts immediately, with a poorly written (and laugh-out loud funny) opening text crawl. Then there’s the coughing robot–not to mention all the other robots, besides R2-D2, speaking English. Why doesn’t R2 just speak English too? Lucas turns R2 into an action hero–only for a while, though a Gizmo arc from Gremlins 2 would have been amusing–and those scenes aren’t terrible. It’s at least cute. There’s a stupid Chewbacca cameo. Every cameo and reference is stupid, depending on the viewer’s regard for the old Star Wars movies, they’re even offensive. It’s like Lucas never watched the original trilogy (yes, even Jedi).

There’s more–much more–like how it seems like Lucas never auditioned Christensen with McGregor, since they have absolutely no chemistry. There’s Portman calling Christensen by the nickname he had in the first movie–you know, when he was a little kid. It’s as creepy as the Luke and Leia kiss (in hindsight). I don’t even want to talk about the Luke and Leia introduction–it’s one of the worst scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s got to be.

Revenge of the Sith is a piece of crap. It’s so unfunny, there’s not even a point in musing on what happened to Lucas. There’s a character named Darth Plagueis (yes, I did have to Google the spelling). You know, as in Darth Plague-is. A grown-up wrote that name down and thought it was good.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George Lucas; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Roger Barton and Ben Burtt; music by John Williams; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Rick McCallum; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Padmé), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Supreme Chancellor Palpatine), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Jimmy Smits (Senator Bail Organa), Frank Oz (Yoda), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Christopher Lee (Count Dooku) and Keisha Castle-Hughes (Her Royal Highness, The Elected Queen of Naboo).


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Steven Spielberg)

The biggest development, in terms of script, in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might actually be George Lucas’s fingerprints. Between Last Crusade and this sequel, Lucas created the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” television series and introduced the idea of canon to the series. As an example, in Crystal Skull, Harrison Ford tells Shia LeBeouf about an adventure from the television show. There’s also the character being part of every historical event (he was in the O.S.S. during World War II–that one isn’t so far-fetched–but he was also at Roswell in 1947–that one is sort of ludicrous, but maybe not). It adds a different tone to the film; all of a sudden, everything needs to be explained. For the first time in an Indiana Jones movie, there’s significant exposition to the character’s off-screen life.

Another development (talking about Crystal Skull traditionally seems impossible, so I’m not even going to try) has to do with how the film handles age. Even with cheesy (but unfortunately necessary) techniques to reference absent friends, the film’s approach is somewhat startling. With an action-packed opening, even with a couple asides to aging, it’s hard to remember Harrison Ford is older (especially with a long break between this film and the last). Then, gradually, it becomes clear how aging has affected the character. LeBeouf’s presence allows for these moments, especially in the scenes with he, Ford and Karen Allen. Even as LeBeouf takes a more central role in the last act, it’s still Ford’s show and Crystal Skull becomes the first franchise film I can remember where age is really a factor and not just lip service (with the obvious exception of Rocky Balboa). Clint Eastwood, for instance, never actually let his action heroes be old. In Crystal Skull, for the most part, the film doesn’t discuss aging.

The next two differences are about production, less abstract.

First is the film’s frequent references to other films. The series started reinventing old serials, then maintained that air without being as directly referential. In Crystal Skull, the references are a lot more neon. It opens with an American Graffiti homage. It’s discreet, only noticeable when thinking about Lucas’s involvement. There’s a major Naked Jungle reference. But what Spielberg does in Crystal Skull, what makes it noteworthy, is apply modern filmmaking mores to a historical era. He even gets away with positioning LeBeouf in a Marlon Brando reference–he makes it work. The most successful example of this application is the motorcycle chase. It’s a fantastic, Indiana Jones motorcycle chase set in a late 1950s college town. It’s fantastic. But the film’s also, tonally, supposed to fit in the 1950s, not just terms of setting, but also genre. Crystal Skull owes more, plot-wise, not so much in execution, to the science fiction films of the era than anything else. Spielberg doesn’t work particularly well with that aspect and does a lot better with the Red Scare elements.

Spielberg’s also working very different technically. With CG (I’ll get to it in a minute) mattes instead of painted ones, Janusz Kaminski shoots a Technicolor adventure. Crystal Skull‘s cinematography, from the usually pedestrian Kaminski, looks wonderful. It might even be the best photographed in the series. The CG is almost exclusively excellent. The much-publicized jungle fight looks great, for instance. Only one strangely matted, too cartoony jungle swinging scene looks bad (for whatever reason, CG has never achieved the acknowledgment of artifice, like rear projection and mattes have). What Spielberg does with the CG, creating fantastic visuals–in addition to the 1950s story trappings–furthers that Technicolor label. Spielberg’s acting sequences are still top-form.

The story does suffer from those elements though. Just from the title–Kingdom of the Crystal Skull–it’s clear this one isn’t as salient as the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail. The title itself is absent any mystery or excitement (…and the Lost City or …and the Golden City would have worked better). It’s a hard story to title, just because the film’s more about what the character learns about himself–never a series emphasis. Koepp’s script has some really good moments, but there are lots of missed opportunities. In the end, it’s not his fault. Koepp can’t fix Lucas’s broken story (just because one can make an Indiana Jones sci-fi movie doesn’t mean he or she should).

Ford’s good in the film, playing the aging well. But because of that cold, action opening, it takes a while to see how Ford is handling the character’s aging. Once it’s clear, it’s fine. Ray Winstone is wasted in his supporting role. The character’s a script necessity, nothing else, and Winstone can’t do anything with it. Similarly, John Hurt’s fine doing a simple role–the casting is another difference with this one, it’s interested in casting recognizable actors. Karen Allen’s good, has some great moments with Ford and LeBeouf. She and Ford’s chemistry from twenty-seven years ago picks up without a hitch (too bad Lucas didn’t let Spielberg put her in every movie, she and Ford would have done a great Nick and Nora). Jim Broadbent’s goofy little role is fine enough too, but the approach (he’s a stand-in for Denholm Elliott) is unimaginative.

I’m not surprised Cate Blanchett is excellent. I assumed she would be good, but I never had any idea how great she’d be. Her character’s got the worst character arc, but Blanchett handles it with aplomb. She relishes in the character’s scripting problems, turning them into advantages.

Here’s the surprise–Shia LeBeouf. Under Spielberg’s direction, LeBeouf turns in a good, solid performance in an impossible role. He handles the period acting well, he handles the action well. Only when Spielberg puts him in a scene out of an unproduced Jurassic Park cartoon does he stumble. It’s a movie star turn and something I never would have thought LeBeouf could achieve.

Another unfortunate difference, the last, is John Williams’s score. He uses themes from the first and third films (there’s not a single acknowledgement of Temple of Doom in the entire film) and uses the main theme as much as he can. He never gives Crystal Skull its own theme. It’s a lazy score, exactly the kind of bored score Williams has been turning in since… well, as Last Crusade is his last enthusiastic one, for eighteen years (with a couple exceptions, I’m sure).

The big problem with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, besides that title, is the ending. There’s a big-time rip-off of The X-Files and, even though it’s competently produced and so on, it’s just wrong. Lucas’s silly story catches up with the film. Then, all of sudden, Spielberg and company turn it around for the last scene and the close. They don’t just, belatedly (which is even referenced in dialogue) correct history, they also end it on a great cinematic smile.

Just like Temple of Doom, Lucas hurts the film. But this time, it’s not too much Lucas.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by David Koepp, based on a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas; produced by Frank Marshall; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Cate Blanchett (Irina Spalko), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Shia LaBeouf (Mutt Williams), Ray Winstone (Mac), John Hurt (Harold Oxley), Igor Jijikine (Dovchenko) and Jim Broadbent (Charles Stanforth).


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Steven Spielberg)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade shows off Steven Spielberg’s comedic skills. Not just in his direction of the scenes between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, but also in the film’s overall tone. At the beginning, as River Phoenix is running from the bad guys on the train, Spielberg homages Buster Keaton (and rather well). The lighter, playful tone–I mean, they make a big Hitler joke–leads to Last Crusade being Spielberg’s finest Panavision work since his first three films. Given he barely uses Panavision, that statement might not be too bold… but I certainly wasn’t expecting Last Crusade to be so much better directed than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The comedic tone also does well due to John Williams score. Though his “Grail Theme” is poor, most of the score is energetic and fun (Williams borrows a lot from his Jaws 2 score here).

Jeffrey Boam’s script might be the film’s biggest boon, given how fast the story moves. The film runs over two hours, but when it near the last twenty minutes, I couldn’t believe it was almost over. Boam knows how to pace things–the flashback, the opening action scene, the brief but content-full scenes in the United States, then Venice, then Austria–by the time Connery shows up, it’s probably at least thirty-five minutes in the film, but it doesn’t feel like it at all.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sean Connery so willing to let himself be laughed at like he does in this film and it’s one of his best performances. It doesn’t hurt he and Ford work beautifully together, but–almost against the odds for a big blockbuster with five or ten action set pieces–the film actually gives him a story arc, gives one to Ford too (another first for an Indiana Jones movie). While they’re not momentous story arcs, they have definite volume.

The supporting cast–Denholm Elliott has some great scenes here, even if he is a walking punch line–is generally strong. John Rhys-Davies, while amusing, seems to be in the film to differentiate it from the second in the series. Julian Glover’s a good villain and Phoenix is fantastic as the young Indiana Jones. Alison Doody seems like she could have had some good scenes, but instead they got cut.

The film’s very polished–the Indiana Jones series sort of serves as examples of the change in 1980s action movies–and Spielberg’s very comfortable with his action scenes here. I love how he gets Hitchcock into a chase with the Nazis.

I knew this one had to be better than the second, but it’s an excellent diversion.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, story by George Lucas and Menno Meyjes; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Robert Watts; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Sean Connery (Professor Henry Jones), Denholm Elliott (Dr. Marcus Brody), Alison Doody (Dr. Elsa Schneider), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Julian Glover (Walter Donovan), River Phoenix (Young Indy), Michael Byrne (Vogel) and Kevork Malikyan (Kazim).


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, Steven Spielberg)

I can understand Chinese people being upset with the stereotypes–Spielberg and company basically lift all the anti-Japanese stereotypes from early 1940s American films and apply them to the Chinese–but at least they’re only goofy and mischievous. The Indians in the film are downright evil. Temple of Doom‘s atrocious script (I suppose Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz do manage to get a few excellent one-liners in) never explains how the bad guys came to have their titular temple, but it certainly implies, left to their own devices, the Indian upper class is inclined toward evil. The good Indians, working for the British (of course), show up at the end for a moment.

Besides the film’s amazingly Western view of the world (it takes the worst from old serials instead of the best… or even the mediocre and not just in its portrayal of non-whites, there’s a moment where the bad guy goes through the secret hatch to escape), it is, simply put, a piece of crap. There are some good action sequences–remove the story from the last act and all the action stuff is well choreographed and, in another context, exciting–but the rest is garbage. Oh, the dinner scene. I forgot–Indians are barbaric savages who eat gross food too. Spielberg, Lucas, Huyck and Katz really take the low road here (but it seems like most of Spielberg and Lucas’s mid 1980s output often did).

While there are some real Spielberg touches–the annoying kids, the poor casting of Kate Capshaw, who gives one of the worst performances I can remember–but it all feels like too much Lucas. Lucas came up with the shallow story, but a lot of the sequences from Temple of Doom seem like they’re straight from Return of the Jedi. Maybe ILM had all the photography techniques down.

Harrison Ford escapes somewhat unscathed. Even he can’t make the scenes with Capshaw believable, but the scenes with the annoying kid are fine. The problem, again, comes from the script. Huyck and Katz turn Indiana Jones into a superhero. An occasionally lucky one, but a superhero nonetheless and it isn’t particularly interesting watching him in the action montages. The full scenes, where he escapes due to environment or the bad guy’s bad luck, those are fine. But when it’s Indiana Jones knocking people out with one punch… it all seems too goofy. The story never gives the impression he’s smart, which is a bit of a problem. It comes kind of close a few times, but it’s a shock every time someone refers to him as “Dr. Jones.”

Spielberg always said he made the third Indiana Jones to make up for Temple of Doom. Well, if he was so aware it was something he needed to atone for, why’d he make it in the first place?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, based on a story by George Lucas; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Robert Watts; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Kate Capshaw (Willie Scott), Ke Huy Quan (Short Round), Amrish Puri (Mola Ram), Roshan Seth (Chattar Lal), Philip Stone (Captain Phillip Blumburtt), Roy Chiao (Lao Che), David Yip (Wu Han), Ric Young (Kao Kan) and Chua Kah Joo (Chen).


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