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Blade Runner (1982)

by Steve Habrat

What a hypnotic and transcendent film that Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction/neo-noir film Blade Runner is. An entrancing genre mashing of sounds, images, words, philosophy, and artistic vision that finds very few challengers to this day. One of the biggest cult films around, Blade Runner was a polarizing film when it was first released but has since gained a wider audience who yearn to be transported to Scott’s twinkling metropolis where it always rains, femme fatales strut in smoke filled rooms, and large neon corporations bear down on the dystopian Los Angeles from all angles. If Blade Runner chose to not say anything at all, it could exist solely as a visual work of art that could hold us in wide-eyed wonder, making us nervous to even blink for fear we would miss a tiny detail. Released almost thirty years ago, the film still has some of the most breathtaking effects that I have ever seen (seriously), not aging a day while continuing to maintain their rusty allure. The film has managed to reverberate with a wide ranger of viewers, from intellectuals eager to decipher the deeper code to science fiction fanatics just looking for a spaceships and laser guns spectacle, for its grand approach and bold pairing of two different genres that shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence.

Blade Runner ushers us into the dystopian world of Los Angeles in 2019. We meet Rick Deckard (Played by Harrison Ford), a “blade-runner” who hunts down bioengineered beings known as replicants, who are banned on earth and incapable of showing empathy. These replicants are designed to perform tasks that could be dangerous to normal human begins and usually only live about four years. Deckard’s job is to track down and “retire” (kill) the replicants who get loose on earth. While dining on a meal of sushi and noodles one dreary evening, Deckard is detained by officer Gaff (Played by Edward James Olmos) and taken to his former supervisor, Bryant (Played by M. Emmet Walsh), and finds himself forced into taking on one last job. This one last job asks that Deckard track down four replicants who have come to earth to find their designer and are leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. These replicants, Roy Batty (Played by Rutger Hauer), Pris (Played by Daryl Hannah), Zhora (Played by Joanna Cassidy), and Leon (Played by Brion James), are extremely dangerous and capable of blending in with normal human begins. This last job pushes Deckard to the edge and introduces him to Tyrell (Played by Joe Turkel), head of the Tyrell Corporation who produces Nexus 6 replicants, which is what Deckard may be dealing with, and falling for an advanced experimental replicant named Rachael (Played by Sean Young), who believes herself to be human.

In a way, it is not surprising to know that Blade Runner didn’t cause too much of a stir when it was first released in June of 1982. By that time, George Lucas had shown us what could be done with science fiction and special effects with Star Wars. Coming just two short years after The Empire Strikes Back and a year before Return of the Jedi, science fiction gurus were most likely not on the prowl for a much more thoughtful and meditative futuristic thriller. By the early 80’s, it was all about the action and while Blade Runner does have some action (it is sporadic), it doesn’t have enough to satisfy the lust for explosions that a Star Wars fan has. The film was attacked for having a weak storyline and poor pacing, which today seems just downright absurd considering some of the garbage of today that is disinterested in any sort of build up. The first time you see Blade Runner, you will be caught off guard by the slower pace of the film (I was), but Scott clearly understands what he is doing and each step he takes toward the big finish seems like it is a completely necessary one and he refuses stop to give us dizzying flashes and blinding bangs of action. In all the rusted steel, dangling wires, and pulsing lights, Scott gives us a never-ending string of conversations about emotion and memories, making Blade Runner a very intimate and human encounter in a world with shimmering artificial advancement and consumerism.

Ford’s performance as Deckard also adds to the hushed pace of the film, a hushed hero who has been forced into taking on a job he really doesn’t want. He finds himself falling for Rachael, which he grapples with until he cannot resist the urge anymore. He sulks through rain soaked streets atmospherically lit by glowing neon advertisements, pulsing strip clubs, and ominous hotel rooms that belong to fugitives. He is far from the grinning, rip-roaring action hero in Indiana Jones and Star Wars. He is absolutely unforgettable as the drained hard-boiled detective. When the film gets to the final showdown between Deckard and Roy, Deckard is a normal flesh and blood guy getting pummeled rather than a superhero who can keep up an ultra-strong being. There has been some debate over whether Deckard is a replicant but his character wanders a dreary, decaying landscape where nothing seems sincere, where corporations dominate the never-ending steel labyrinth. It seems like his character has numbed to his backdrop, a world that doesn’t require any real feeling at all.

The supporting cast of Blade Runner is also memorable, the best being Hauer’s Roy Batty, who never seems like he is in any big rush. He is a mysterious villain who claims he has seen unforgettable things in his existence and craves an extended life as he stalks Ford’s disoriented Deckard. He is a villain that fights with his words rather than his superhuman strength, which are both terrifying when accompanied by the absolutely flawless lighting scheme and the one-of-a-kind score that allows Blade Runner to take on a life of its own. Also notable are Daryl Hannah as Pris, a leggy replicant who enjoys slinking around like a spider and using her innocence to manipulate her frail prey. She is just as unpredictable and dangerous as Roy. You will also find Young’s Rachael grabbing for your sympathies as she comes to terms with the fact that she is a replicant implanted with someone else’s memories. You feel her longing to be human and her spark when she begins to fall for Deckard. We also get small but equally great performances from William Sanderson as J.F. Sebastian, a designer who works closely with Turkel’s businessman Tyrell.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Blade Runner is the marvelous lighting that is strung throughout, effective lit to give maximum ambiance. It can be harsh but often ethereal and strangely soothing. The final showdown between Roy and Deckard is without question the best lighting sequence in the entire film, one that finds our characters backlit by beams of white light in a derelict prison of chain link fence, wood, and checkered tile. The climax does swell into a crescendo of run-down beauty, a dazzling mixture of glorious rays of light, moldy darkness, swirling score, and heady ideas of death and memories. For the casual viewer, it may take a few viewings to really allow you to make a final judgment on the film. I myself was a little unsure of how I felt about it on my first viewing but as years pass, I have grown fond of the film’s technical accomplishments, its neo-noir story, and Ford’s controlled performance. A busy work of art that demands we look closer, Blade Runner dares to challenge the viewer and push the boundaries of science fiction, creating something that still feels fresh to this day.

Grade: A+

Blade Runner is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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

by Steve Habrat

After the fatigued but fun Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, Indy took a long, much needed break from saving the world. For years, audiences begged for another installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, loosing their minds over the smallest hints dropped about a possible new film. In 2008, fans finally got their wish with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a CGI heavy blockbuster that had an aged Indy battling Russians in the atomic age. Opting for science fiction shenanigans over biblical trinkets, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings back Harrison Ford as the fedora-wearing hero, has him joining forces with fan favorite Marion Ravenwood, and facing some of his most outlandish action scenes yet. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is littered with the fingerprints of George “Overkill” Lucas, who I’m fairly certain is responsible for some of the low points of this half-good installment. Returning director Steve Spielberg does his best to hold the project together and he does direct the film care, but it is so painfully obvious where Lucas took over as his input sends Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into a violent nosedive that Spielberg has to quickly right.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull picks up in 1957, with a much older Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Ford) and his partner George “Mac” McHale (Played by Ray Winstone) kidnapped by Soviet Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Played by Cate Blanchett). She brings Indy and Mac to Area 51, demanding Indy locates a mysterious box that contains the alien remains from Roswell. Reluctantly, Indy begins helping her and then makes a daring get away. Indy narrowly survives a nuclear bomb test and is picked up by the FBI, who accuses him of working with the Soviets. Indy is forced to take an indefinite leave of absence from the University he teaches at but soon finds himself approached by a greaser named Mutt Williams (Played by Shia LaBeouf) who tells Indy that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (Played by John Hurt), has mysteriously disappeared after he discovered a crystal skull in Peru. Mutt also reveals that his mother has been kidnapped and that he needs Indy’s help to find her. Indy agrees to help Mutt find his mother and Oxley but as their search continues, they discover that Colonel Dr. Spalko is also after the crystal skull, which if obtained could allow the Russians to wage psychic warfare on America.

The rumor behind The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that there was another script that Spielberg wanted to make but Lucas insisted on this one. While there are some awesome moments in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the good is overshadowed by the extremely awful. In this film, we see Indy survive an nuclear bomb blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator, narrowly escape a sea of giant killer ants, Mutt swinging through the jungle with monkeys, and a climax featuring a huge UFO rising up out of the ground. It is these moments that make The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feel more like a Star Wars film rather than an installment of Indiana Jones. The film does marvelously weave perhaps one of the most interesting eras into the franchise, using the Cold War as the backdrop for all the action. Yet this all feels even more like child’s play, more than The Last Crusade did. The scene with Mutt swing through the jungle on vines with a slew of cute monkeys will make the kids giddy. There is also the weird prairie dogs that are constantly shown in the opening moments of the film, a touch that I still to this day do not quite understand other than to add a cutesy family touch.

The major positive here is the presence of the fervent Ford, who gladly dusts off the famous fedora and wears it proudly while searching for the crystal skull. Spielberg and Lucas enjoy playing up the joke that he has aged and not at his heroic best, having Indy make mistakes and urging Mutt to call him “Gramps” every chance he gets. Yet when Ford is asked to be tough and throw a couple of right hooks, he is more than willing to give it a try. Ford still has it as an action hero and he ultimately carries this overly polished moneymaker across the finish line. Giving him Karen Allen to work with also puts some spring in his step, reigniting the feisty flame the two had in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. They once again argue about Indy’s fear of commitment and by now, you know that Mutt turns out to be Indy’s son, which causes Indy to really erupt. This dysfunctional family ends up being a real winner even if it is an attempt to sell a family movie. I especially like watching Indy and Marion once again discover their feelings for each other, which allowed The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to win points for familiarity.

There has been quite a bit of controversy over the character of Mutt Williams, who at times seems to be there to allow for future installments. He’s likable enough but I hope that Spielberg and Lucas have the good sense to not pass the whip and fedora to him. They do a clever little fake out at the end but I still fear the worst with his character. He ends up being a character that the kiddies can root for while Mom and Dad are cheering for the winded Indy and Marion. John Hurt gets to have a little fun playing off-his-rocker with Harold Oxley. He is another character that is there just to provide a few little chuckles. Winstone as Mac is a pretty useless character, there to be the typical side nuisance Indy has to constantly deal with. The star next to Allen and Ford is without question Blanchett, who enjoys playing the vampy Spalko a little too much. She is slightly sexy and cartoonishly menacing when swinging around a sword. She truly is a character that looks like she was ripped out of a long, lost comic book that has been stashed away in your grandpa’s basement. Next to Raiders’ Arnold Thot and Temple of Doom’s Mola Ram, she is one of the best villains of the Indian Jones series.

If Spielberg and Lucas would have cut back on some of the excess and maybe removed the silly CGI alien at the end, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have been a much smoother roller coaster ride. Many have lambasted Spielberg for some of the mistakes here but I am firmly convinced that Lucas is the one to blame for the more asinine moments of the film. In a way, I sort of feel bad for giving this film an average grade because there is so much heart and dedication on display, especially from Ford and Spielberg, who seem to be right at home with this material. There were moments where I was totally engulfed by the rousing action, mostly the ones that weren’t cluttered with CGI trickery. If Indiana Jones does return for one more adventure, lets hope that Lucas steps away from the special effects and focuses more on giving fans a film that is worthy of their fedora-wearing hero rather than just being a greedy cash grab.

Grade: C+

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

by Steve Habrat

After taking the freaky detour into cult territory in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg retreated back to the winning formula that they had with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, once again pitting our fedora-wearing hero against the dreaded Nazis. Sadly, they seemed really half-hearted about that return, almost a bit reluctant and preoccupied. There is quite a bit to like about 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the addition of Sean Connery as Indy’s father is a brilliant one, but the action and storyline do not seem as spry as they did in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom. It appears that the franchise is a bit winded and in need of a breather, much like our hero after doing battle aboard a tank full of Nazis. With a slightly dull storyline, the true hero here is without question Connery, who is wonderfully effortless as Indy’s father. The two argue, squabble, and work on their relationship all while bullets fly overhead. The plus to all of this is that we get to know just a little bit more about the whip-cracking Indiana Jones but the downside is the film is relying a bit too heavily on the father/son relationship and not enough on the task at hand: Finding the Holy Grail.

Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade picks up in 1938 with Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford) in search of an ornamental cross that he has been looking for every since he was young. After recovering the cross, Indy returns to the university he teaches at where he finds himself approached by Walter Donovan (Played by Julian Glover), who tells him that his father, Professor Henry Jones (Played by Sean Connery), has vanished while searching for the Holy Grail, which he had been obsessed with finding his entire life. After mysteriously receiving his father’s diary in the mail, Indy sets out to locate his father with the help of his colleague Dr. Marcus Brody (Played by Denholm Elliot) and the strikingly beautiful Dr. Elsa Schneider (Played by Alison Doody). As Indy’s search for his father continues, he discovers that the Nazis are also in search of the Holy Grail and if they obtain it, they are guaranteed world domination.

At the time of its release, The Temple of Doom was met with mixed reviews from critics. While The Temple of Doom was a step down from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film was a bit too exotic for some tastes. Lucas and Spielberg were hell-bent to get the franchise back on the familiar path that won fans over in the first place. While the familiarity is welcome, I still enjoyed the exotic flavor of the second installment a bit more than the third chapter. The Last Crusade feels a bit too Hallmarky at times, like it is playing things too safe. The tone here isn’t nearly as dark as the previous two films and certainly not as violent. It is clear that this is for a much younger audience unlike the adult oriented Raiders and The Temple of Doom. It is obvious that Lucas and Spielberg don’t want to cause too much of a stir after producing a film that was responsible for creating the PG-13 rating. With playing things safe, Lucas and Spielberg seem to have little heart in the project, almost like they are just cranking it out so the fans will shut up. This doesn’t mean that they disrespect the character of Indiana Jones, giving him even more depth than before, doing away with the macho personality established in the second film, and giving him a proper send-off into a blazing sunset.

In The Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones was a flexing superhero that looked like he could have run alongside Rambo. In The Last Crusade, he is back to the Dr. Jones we knew in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Maybe this is due to his father’s supervision? In this installment, he isn’t knocking every single bad guy clean off his feet or ripping off his shirtsleeves to show off his biceps to Elsa. This is a much headier showdown than the battle of the brawn in The Temple of Doom. Here, Indy has to use his wit and intellect to stay one step ahead of the Nazis who stop at nothing to make sure he doesn’t get to the Grail before they do. I did not see Temple of Doom Indy getting swept up in the beauty of Venice and lusting after pretty blonde bombshells. Also enjoyable is the glimpse of a younger Indy (Played by River Phoenix) at the beginning of the film. In it, we get to see that the love of the chase began at an early age and that his relationship with his father was a on the rocks.

Professor Henry Jones end up being the salt that The Last Crusade is in desperate need of. He’s downright hilarious with precise comedic timing. You’ll love his reaction when Indy mows down a handful of machine gun toting Nazis or how proper Indy becomes when addressing his stern father (he calls him “Sir”). Their interactions turn out to be the highlight of The Last Crusade and watching them repair their relationship is a real treat. Connery also gets memorable interaction with bird-brained Marcus Brody. Alison Doody is a scorcher as the flip-flopping Elsa but she serves basically no purpose other than being another thorn in Indy’s side and a wobbly love interest. Glover’s Donovan, who early on reveals that he is working with the Nazis, is probably the nicest villain of the Indiana Jones trilogy, never really making us chew at our nails. He is very similar to the character of Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Michael Byrne steps up to the plate to play the real nasty General Vogel, the guy who gets to trade punches with Indy. John Rhys-Davies also returns as Sallah, who isn’t really given much to do outside of add a bit more comic relief to the action.

There are a few action sequences that do manage to capture some of the adrenaline pumping thrills of the first two films. A battle aboard a tank has some edge-of-your-seat moments but is thrown off by too many laughs and “how convenient” moments. The strongest two action scenes end up being a boat chase and Indy and Professor Jones trying to outrun Nazi fighter planes. Unlike The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade dashes all over the world, jumping from Nazi occupied Berlin to Venice to Jordan. Of all the Indiana Jones films, The Last Crusade is without question the funniest installment, more concerned with making us chuckle rather than filling us with that sense of adventure that Raiders and The Temple of Doom were keen on. Overall, I think that is why I favor Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom to The Last Crusade. This film feels like a dry rehash without the iconic moments to spice things up. That is not to say that I think that The Last Crusade is a bad film. The Last Crusade is a nice wrap up but it was time for Indy to retire the fedora and hang up the whip for a while. All that globetrotting and saving the world really wears a guy out.

Grade: B

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is available on DVD.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

by Steve Habrat

After the flawless Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was impossible for producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg to make another Indiana Jones film that would be able to compare to the first film. In 1984, Lucas and Spielberg released Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an equally rollicking adventure that goes heavier on the supernatural horror but pales in the story department.  It also boasts the coolest title in the Indiana Jones saga, sounding like a forgotten B-horror movie from the 50s. The Temple of Doom cuts back on the globetrotting and outdoor scope that Raiders of the Lost Ark had and opts for damp, atmospheric caves that are crawling with bugs, humid jungles where giant vampire bats swoop from above, and underground sanctuaries that are lit by torches, candles, and dotted with rotting skulls. Acting as the prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom embraces a much sillier plotline that reeks of something that would have been right at home in an EC Comic with lots of icky gore to compliment the comic book feel. With The Temple of Doom, Lucas and Spielberg choose to push the action further, wasting absolutely no time at all to jump into all the shooting, running, jumping, and punching, eager to quicken your pulse and get your adrenaline pumping.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom picks up at a swanky Shanghai nightclub in 1935. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford) narrowly escapes a brutal encounter with dreaded gangster Lao Che (Played by Roy Chiao), who is searching for the remains of Nurhachi, an emperor from the Ming Dynasty. Indy narrowly escapes the confrontation with Lao Che, dragging local singer Willie Scott (Played by Kate Capshaw) and ten-year-old sidekick Short Round (Played by Jonathan Ke Quan) with him. The trio boards a plane for India but they have to make a quick exit when they realize that the flight has been sabotaged. Indy, Willie, and Short Round finally end up in India where they are brought to a desolate village. The village elders enlist the help of the trio to locate Pankot Palace where the sinister Thugee cult is currently hiding. It turns out this cult, lead by the evil Mola Ram (Played by Amrish Puri), have kidnapped the villager’s children and have stolen their Shiva lingam stone, a stone that supposedly brings the village good luck. Indy, Willie, and Short Round set out to find Pankot Palace but they soon realize that this cult is dabbling in dangerous black magic and may be deadlier than they had anticipated.

Unlike the cleaner cut and handsome Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom is a scroungy and homely blockbuster, one with multiple foul moments. It’s a movie made by overgrown kids for kids. The movie gleefully leaps into mud puddles searching for one nasty visual gag after another. There are monkey brains here, exotic insects there, slimy baby snakes, and a still beating heart ripped out of one poor saps chest. When it comes to the plot, there is no question that the storyline here is stretched thinly and Spielberg fills the film out with lengthy action sequences. At one point, he blatantly addresses the idea that this film is a roller coaster ride in the extended mine car chase that at times resembles an indoor roller coaster. Yet the spirit of adventure is alive and well in The Temple of Doom, the same spirit that kept Raiders of the Lost Ark aloft. There is no question that The Temple of Doom is also a much darker movie than Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film that dabbles in child slavery, human sacrifice, and includes prolonged sequences where horror hangs heavy in the air.

While Harrison Ford’s Indy is still as likable as he was in 1981, in The Temple of Doom, he becomes the familiar 80’s action hero that he avoided in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He rips his shirtsleeves off to show off his biceps, is dipped in fake sweat, and pummels every foe that stands in his path. There is never a moment where you fear he won’t make it out of a situation alive. I wish that Spielberg had sidestepped this 80’s staple that was okay other places but a bit out of place for the Indiana Jones films. He does get one moment that is evocative of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Indy trading punches with a hulking Thugee guard that is once again played by Pat Roach (the same guy who played the Nazi mechanic in Raiders). It ends in a fittingly gruesome death that mirrors the propeller death in Raiders. Indy finds himself aided by the consistently shrieking Willie, who is appalled by everything she stumbles across. She freaks over bugs, bats, lizards, elephants, and Mola Ram. I have to say that I prefer the tougher Marion Ravenwood to fraidy cat Willie Scott, although Willie does get one hell of an introduction, belting out “Anything Goes” in Mandarin. Another character I remain iffy with is Short Round, who has good and bad moments. At times, he annoys me, there to serve as eye-rolling comic relief for the kids and at times, I rooted for him, especially when we learn about his background.

As far as the villains go, Mola Ram has to be the most bizarre of the Indiana Jones realm. A deranged cult leader with wild bug eyes and with a fetish for tearing the heart from his victim’s chest, he is usually drenched in bright red lighting, his mouth curling into a sick smile. When he puts his demonic headdress on, he is really an intimidating sight. He is also found of dragging his lines of dialogue out, adding extra menace to each and every word. The introduction belongs to Lao Che, a cocky gangster who likes toying with Dr. Jones. They have a delectable war of words in the middle of a crowded nightclub, both Dr. Jones and Lao topping each other’s threats as the seconds pass. Ford himself gets to do bad when he is hypnotized by Mola Ram, which he seems to have a blast doing. It’s only for a short stretch but it is a nice little change of pace for the all-American hero.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom does embrace some of the 80’s overkill, which does detract from the overall quality of the film. At times, it seems more concerned with production value and special effects over a lasting story.  The effects in The Temple of Doom have not aged gracefully but there are a number of gags that still do hold together, mostly the heart being ripped from the chest. With the cranked up violence, the film is responsible for creating the PG-13 rating and it is easy to see why. Despite having a weaker story, The Temple of Doom has a number of iconic moments that elevate it to classic status. There was no way that Spielberg would ever live up to the first film and in a way, we don’t really expect him to. Featuring one hell of a final showdown on a rickety bridge that will have those who suffer from vertigo covering their eyes, a dazzling opening musical number, and plenty of eye candy for the entire family, Spielberg delivers an essential action film that more than holds its own.

Grade: B+

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is available on DVD.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

by Steve Habrat

As a kid, I absolutely loved producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved getting swept up in the adventure, hanging on every action scene, and being hypnotized by the sprinkling of horror that boils over at the unforgettable climax. To this very day, I credit Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as one of the films that made me fall in love with cinema and pursue a deeper understanding of the medium. Each and every time I watch the film, it feels like I am seeing it for the first time all over again. I’m sure my anti-Spielberg film professors would be chocking on their own vomit if they read that! To this very day, I still absolutely love this movie and love the fact that it is a tribute to the serials from the 1930s and 40’s. I can honestly say that I really can’t find a single thing wrong with Raiders of the Lost Ark, every actor perfectly cast, every line of dialogue spoken with extreme care, and every action sequence wildly iconic. Right from the beginning, Raiders of the Lost Ark establishes itself as a classic film as Spielberg gives us one of the most thrilling opening sequences to a motion picture and from there, he refuses to let up for two hours. How can you argue with that?

Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces us to out hero Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford), an archeologist who gets himself into one tense, death-defying situation after another. The year is 1936 and the Nazis are currently exploring ways to make their army invincible using occult powers. Two U.S. Army intelligence officers approach Dr. Jones about the Nazi’s quest to find the Staff of Ra, which would reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant. The intelligence officers ask that Dr. Jones locate the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis get a hold of it and unleash its devastating powers on the world. This quest forces Dr. Jones to enlist the help of his old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Played by Karen Allen), and old pal Sallah (Played by John Rhys-Davies) to help defeat his nemesis, René Belloq (Played by Paul Freeman), ruthless Colonel Dietrich (Played by Wolf Kahler) and the sinister Gestapo interrogator, Arnold Toht (Played by Ronald Lacey).

Never attempting to be anything it is not, Raiders of the Lost Ark exists solely to entertain all who choose to watch it and entertain it does. This movie is so damn fun, it is hard to believe there are those who resist it. It’s pure popcorn-munching fun that is one of the definitive summer movies. In addition to a light but gripping story, Spielberg packs his film with so many memorable moments, its absolutely unbelievable. Released in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark refuses to conform to what was all the rage in the 1980s, which were flexing heroes with absolutely no emotion whatsoever (the Stallones and the Schwarzeneggers). Spielberg chooses to give us a much more vulnerable hero, one who has a few love demons scratching at his heart and one who can get hurt (both physically and emotionally). Dr. Jones isn’t always perfect but he is proud to be flesh and blood. It always seems like the odds are stacked against him as he is relentlessly backstabbed and duking it out with forces that we are sure will overwhelm him. A giant rolling boulder chases him, he is dropped into a pit of poisonous snakes (he hates snakes), and trades blows with a hulking Nazi mechanic all while dodging the propellers of a fly wing. This guy goes through Hell to protect the world.

A heaping amount of credit should go to Ford, who is a revelation as Indiana Jones, wonderfully capturing this vulnerability and imperfection. His cranky humor and irritation with his current situation (whatever he may be encountering: hulking Nazi, snakes, Belloq, etc.) is always on point. You practically hear him go “GULP!” when staring down some obstacles he comes across. He is even more fun when he is dealing with the griping Marion, who is constantly giving him a hard time for wronging her in the past. There is a spark between Ford and Allen and we do root for their love for each other to be rediscovered. We know that Dr. Jones wouldn’t be getting as far as he is without the help of Marion and we know that Marion would fall into the clutches of the dreaded Nazis if it wasn’t for Indy swinging in at the last second to save the day. They are like an old married couple that has yet to get married.

Raiders of the Lost Ark packs a trio of despicable villains to torment Dr. Jones and Marion. The best one here is Lacey’s Toht, who is a vaguely perverse, mouth-breathing freak with a nasty burn on his hand. He speaks slowly, allowing each one of his words to hit the victim he toying with. He wishes that he had the charm of Belloq, another slippery snake who snarls and smirks at Dr. Jones from a far. He loves getting the upper hand on Indy—usually leaving him in hopeless situations that will have you drying off your palms. Completing this trio of terror is Kahler’s Colonel Dietrich, the man leading the operation to secure the Ark. They all get their moment to kick Dr. Jones while he is down, only striking when he is down because none have the muscle to throw down with good old Indy. The other baddies that will stick in your mind is Alfred Molina in his debut role as the backstabbing Sapito who leaves Indy to be crushed by a giant boulder and various other booby traps and Pat Roach as a burly Nazi mechanic who gets a prolonged fight sequence with Indy.

Despite being PG, Raiders of the Lost Ark does have a few moments that wander into the horror realm. The climax of the film is nice and ghoulishly nasty, complete with melting antagonists and terrifying demons laying waste to tons of Nazi soldiers. The film is surprisingly violent and does contain some moments that may scar young children. Overall, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a globetrotting blockbuster that made globetrotting action cool. With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg set the bar so high for action/adventure films that he couldn’t top himself. The three sequels, while good in their own right, pale in comparison to this installment. Also notable is the easily recognizable score by John Williams, one that compliments the rollicking action like peanut butter does strawberry jelly. While certain aspects of it are showing its age, Raiders of the Lost Ark still stands as the definitive action/adventure film, one that is always imitated but will never be duplicated and one that can outrun the spry CGI blockbusters of today. This is an undisputed classic and absolutely flawless film.

Grade: A+

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is available on DVD.

Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith (2005)

by Steve Habrat

After the numbing Attack of the Clones, it was anyone’s guess where the Star Wars saga would go next. Would Lucas improve it and finally catch the rollicking spirit that made the original three films great or would he continue to bog every frame and actor down with relentless CGI garbage? The answer is that he would do both with Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith. The third entry in Lucas’s modern trilogy would be the closest to the original films, both visually and spiritually, but the film would also suffer from his refusal to ease up on the CGI that practically splits every frame of this overly busy and rocky final installment. In the time between The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith, one would think that Lucas would try to improve his communication with his actors, fine tuning how to instruct them to be somewhat believable, especially with the misguided Hayden Christensen, who acts more like a rebellious teenager rather than troubled man consumed by demons, both internally and externally. Instead, Lucas seemed to be more interested in making Darth Vader unintentionally funny and dreaming up CGI aliens.

Revenge of the Sith opens with the Republic and the Separatists still waging the Clone War. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Played by Hayden Christensen) have been sent to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Played by Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of the dreaded half alien and half robot General Grievous. After a narrow escape, Anakin returns to his wife Padmé (Played by Natalie Portman), who reveals to him that she is pregnant. Anakin has recently found himself suffering from visions of Padmé dying during childbirth. Soon, Chancellor Palpatine reveals to Anakin that he is the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, the man controlling the conflict between the Republic and the Separatists. Darth Sidious begins convincing Anakin to become his Sith apprentice in the absence of Obi-Wan, who has gone after General Grievous. As Anakin slowly falls under the spell of the wicked Darth Sidious, Obi-Wan returns to try to save Anakin before he is consumed by the dark side of the force. Anakin, however, believes that Darth Sidious is the only one who can save Padmé’s life.

Lucas includes a few more of the original characters in Revenge of the Sith. We get a brief cameo by the Wookies and a quick glimpse of Chewbacca, one of the greatest characters from the original trilogy. Yoda begins to seem weaker and appear much more feeble than in the previous two installments. R2D2 and C-3P0 have heavier roles here and seem more at home in Revenge of the Sith over The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Even Emperor Palpatine pulling the dark hood over his head will send an electric jolt of excitement through you. It also doesn’t hurt to finally have Anakin in the iconic costume of Darth Vader by the finale. Yet Lucas poorly paces much of the action in Revenge of the Sith, making it incredibly difficult to get excited about the events setting the stage for the classic trilogy. A battle between General Grievous and Obi-Wan is way too short and unsatisfying. A brief showdown between Anakin Skywalker and Count Dooku (Played by Christopher Lee) seems thrown in just to let us know that Dooku is still in the picture. Even the climatic showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan is lumpy and inconsistent, a bit too cartoonish and by the end is just the two men glaring at each other as computerized lava splashes around them.

The bane of the first half of the Star Wars saga has been the acting, an issue that I still can’t believe that Lucas overlooked. It’s been about the visual effects with Episodes I-III and sadly, the same problem plagues Revenge of the Sith. Here we have epic shots of planets that largely failed to capture our imaginations that feature characters we are only slightly acquainted with getting killed.  Lucas is convinced that if the score mourns for these characters, so will we. He gives us several shots of the Jedi being wiped out, Jedi that we only see from time to time, but not ones we know. He fairs better with the departure of Yoda and the death of Mace Windu (Played by Samuel L. Jackson). Christensen fairs no better in Revenge of the Sith, his acting actually being worse here than in Attack of the Clones. Here Lucas slaps some red contacts in Christensen’s eyes (Actually, he probably just digitally made his eyes red. Lucas wouldn’t dare do anything authentic. Who am I kidding!?) and expects us to quiver in our seats. He didn’t frighten me in the least, but when the Vader suit emerges, you will quiver. That quiver will quickly fade into laughter when he delivers the worst line of dialogue ever written (“NOOOOOOOO!”). It’s the furthest thing from a Vader response and ruins a tense emotional moment. Way to go, Lucas!

Portman and McGregor are the true veterans who deserve a round of applause. They do a fine job with the hodgepodge that Lucas hands them. By the end of this film, I had grown to care about Kenobi. McGregor injected a soul into his character and made him more than just a sloppy outline. Portman isn’t the strong female force this time around, which was slightly depressing, but understandable due to her character’s pregnancy. Lucas did not execute the shift from strong to heartbroken gracefully but Portman handles it like a professional. You catch brief glimpses of regret for putting her heart on the line and devastation that the man she loves is filled with brimming such cruelty. Jackson’s composed and astute Mace Windu is also a standout here, another character that worms his way into your heart. It was truly difficult to watch his final moments unfold on screen. This credit should go to Jackson, though, because I’m sure Lucas was more concerned with how many spaceships he could think up and cram into the background.

Another problem that has plagued Episodes I-III is the fact that Lucas hasn’t truly given us multifaceted villains to fear. They have become iconic strictly in physical appearance. Personality wise, they have been stiffs who are only present to cackle menacingly and serve as the other end in a lightsaber battle. Revenge of the Sith shakes this curse in the final moments when Vader stands next to Emperor Palpatine as they watch the construction of the dreaded Death Star. Familiarity was key for Revenge of the Sith, which is what ultimately allowed the film to be slightly better than Attack of the Clones. It still lacked a truly adventurous side–the one that I believe saved The Phantom Menace from truly sucking. Yet in a strange way, familiarity is what also gave The Phantom Menace another leg to stand on. I felt like I was watching a Star Wars film the first time I saw it and I still do when I see The Phantom Menace, a plus that allows me to overlook Jar Jar Binks. I can’t say the same for Attack of the Clones, a film that felt like a knock off of Star Wars film rather than actually seeming like one of the installments in the series. In Revenge of the Sith, I sometimes felt like I was watching one, and half is better than none, in my opinion. Revenge of the Sith is painfully middling, but it is worth sitting through the monotonous to get to that familiar and proficiently composed fifteen-minute finale.

Grade: C+

Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith is now available on Blu-ray.

Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones (2002)

by Steve Habrat

If Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace troubled fans about the intentions of George Lucas, then Episode II-Attack of the Clones, boasting a B-movie title that seems like a forgotten Cold War science fiction film from the 50’s, solidified concerns. In the wake of the backlash against the fourth Batman film, Batman & Robin, Chris O’Donnell famously said, “I felt like I was making a kid’s toy commercial.” I wonder what everyone thought on the set of Attack of the Clones, a soulless action film that seems like a cross between a video game demo and a toy plug, all while Lucas laughs in the faces of his loyal fans. Everything in Attack of the Clones is a mess, from the script, to the muddled plot, to its creepy romance that sparks between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé, the intentions of Lucas are simple—make more money! Even the spirit of adventure, was still alive and well in The Phantom Menace was removed and instead, the film resorts to auto pilot and disjointed segments of action that seem like they were designed for video games rather than a feature film. Going back and revisiting the film in Blu-ray, I couldn’t help but think of O’Donnell’s famous recollection of his experience on Batman & Robin. Instead, I didn’t feel like I was making a toy commercial but I felt like I was watching the most expensive one in the history of commercials.

Attack of the Clones picks up several years after the events of The Phantom Menace, with Anakin Skywalker (Played by Hayden Christensen) now barely an adult, undergoing Jedi Knight training from Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor). The opening reveals that the Galactic Republic is in crisis and is now facing a separatist movement lead by the evil Count Dooku (Played by Christopher Lee). Padmé Amidala (Played by Natalie Portman), now a senator, makes an appearance at the Galactic Senate to cast a vote against the creation of an Army of the Republic, which sparks several assassination attempts aimed at Padmé. Chancellor Palpatine (Played by Ian McDiarmid) demands that she be placed under the protection of Obi-Wan and Anakin. Soon, Anakin and Padmé find a forbidden romance blossoming between them and Obi-Wan sets off to investigate and track a mysterious and lethal bounty hunter called Jango Fett (Played by Temuera Morrison). His investigations of the assassination attempts lead him to the planet of Kamino, where he discovers the creation of a clone army. He also learns that Count Dooku and Trade Federation Vicory Nute Gunray are redeveloping their dreaded droid army and are dead set on killing Padmé.

Attack of the Clones is more of a project that gives fans a look at early designs of the storm troopers and the early days of the popular bounty hunter Boba Fett. It all amounts to a bunch of relentless CGI battles, hammy acting, and unexciting explorations of insipid planets. It features perhaps some of the worst acting in the saga, mostly stemming from Christensen’s Anakin, who whines all of his dialogue and sounds like a teenager who hasn’t hit puberty trying to deepen his voice to sound intimidating. I absolutely detested his character and the half-assed attempts by Lucas to show fleeting signs of the darkness in him. It never put fear in my heart and Attack of the Clones fails to make us truly like him. That was the point, after all, that when his inevitable fall comes in Episode III, it would overwhelm us with grief for his character.

There is much more profession in the work from Lee’s Count Dooku as well as returning cast members Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, McGregor’s Obi-Wan, and Portman’s Padmé. They all seem to understand that Lucas has little to no interest in them and their performances carrying any emotional weight so they put in their own individual effort. The main problem with Dooku is he isn’t really explained and is instead just the accepted bad guy. Matching Christensen in the unconvincing acting department is Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett, who is like an exaggeration of a villain. He tries so hard to be bad and suspicious that it comes off as a joke. He gives mock “muhaha’s” along with his son Boba (Played by Daniel Logan) as they relentlessly try to kill Obi-Wan in air chases and lightsaber versus laser pistol battles.

Lucas tweaks the story to make it a bit more accessible to casual viewers, even more so than The Phantom Menace, which is perplexing due to the darker tone of Attack of the Clones. He pours more attention into his CGI critters that scamper and fly around, none that are remotely impressive or noteworthy. Yoda ends up being his greatest success but I still wish he had used a puppet in the spirit of The Empire Strikes Back. Here Yoda finally throws down and fights, a scene that drove the diehard fans wild when I saw it opening day all those years ago. Every other alien, vehicle, or battle sequence exists simply to end up being an action figure or instruct children on how to play with the toys that will be made in the wake of the film’s release. Nothing seems to be there to aid in telling a worthy story. It doesn’t help that he poorly edits his battle scenes, making them too short, anti-climatic, or just plain monotonous. The final clone battle resembles cut scenes from a video game. I kept waiting for Lucas to come barging through my front door and toss me a video game controller.

In the end, Attack of the Clones is a victim it’s own excesses. Every shot echoes with the cries of Lucas demanding more! It never filled me with childlike awe, got my adrenaline pumping, or whisked me away on the wings of adventure. In fact, I find myself largely blocking the film out, straining to remember certain aspects of it. The film droned on and on but never said much. It is a bloated project that ambles towards the finish line and coughs up an awkward attempt at romance that I never bought into for a second. Furthermore, Lucas doesn’t even come close to matching the climatic lightsaber battle in The Phantom Menace. In my opinion, I found Attack of the Clones to be the lowest point of the Star Wars saga, a film that should not have began with the famous introduction, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” but rather “Right now, on a video game console just in the other room…”

Grade: C-

Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the Star Wars Saga boxed set.

Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace (1999)

by Steve Habrat

If you are looking for a review of the 3D converted re-release of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, you won’t find it here. I don’t feel the need to shell out thirteen dollars for a film that wasn’t filmed in 3D but rather converted to milk more money out of fans. The re-release and my recent purchase of the Blu-ray set has pushed me to revisit the saga in crystal clear HD and I must say, it does look remarkable, but a pretty picture does not make a great film, folks. Lucas, a master showman when it comes to special effects, lost the magic that his original three films had and instead, his new trilogy consisted of countless CGI backgrounds, aliens of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and relentless rubbery action scenes. What made the original three Star Wars films such a success was that they heavily relied on the tale that was told. The characters didn’t seem to have coached interaction, but rather sincere emotions. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas showed us that he had lost control and had instead focused more on creating and selling toys than creating and selling a timeless tale that would extend across generations. But, I will also admit that I found The Phantom Menace to actually be the best of the new Star Wars films. Believe it or not.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… The evil Trade Federation led by Nute Gunray has set their sights on the peaceful planet of Naboo, which they aim to invade. When two Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jin (Played by Liam Neeson) are sent to negotiate the blockade issued by the Trade Federation. Upon their arrival, the evil Darth Sidious (Played by Ian McDiarmid) orders that the droid army kill the Jedi. They nearly escape and find themselves on the planet of Naboo, where they befriend an irritating Gungan creature named Jar Jar Binks (Played by Ahmed Best). Jar Jar Binks takes them to the capital Theed, where they rescue Queen Amidala (Played by Natalie Portman) before the Federation can take her. They narrowly escape (again) and then find themselves on the planet Tatooine, where they befriend a salve boy known as Anakin Skywalker (Played by Jake Lloyd). As their friendship grows with Anakin, the Jedi begin to sense that the Force is strong with the boy and that he should be trained as a Jedi. Soon, they find themselves being tracked by a gruesome horned Sith known Darth Maul (Played by Ray Park), who aims to kill the Jedi. The Jedi must also convince the underwater Gungan city Otoh Gunga to help the people of Naboo and aid them in retaking their planet.

The Phantom Menace does achieve the task of opening a door to another galaxy, one that leaves us asking, ‘what will Lucas think of next?’ It really is incredible taking all the creativity in and waiting for little cameos from classic characters. Yoda shows up, R2D2 is in the mix, and, heck, so is Jabba the Hutt for a brief period. The new characters that are introduced are largely wooden in their performance, which is surprising due to the cast of players Lucas has at his disposal. Liam Neeson does the best job with the clunky script that Lucas provides. He is compassionate, kind, and when need be, totally kick-ass. He is a wise father figure for both Obi-Wan and the probing Anakin. McGregor also plays his character the best he can, resisting the constricting grip of Lucas every chance he gets. He’s the true gung-ho hero who is up for an adventure, which is, after all, why we are visiting this far away galaxy.

Natalie Portman also does a stand out job as Queen Amidala, the monotone and ornate ruler who surges with life once Lucas takes us to Tatoonie. Lucas had the good sense to not make her a complete damsel in distress. When she is handed a laser pistol, she fires back at the frail droid army who are persistent in their attacks. The true annoyance comes in the form of young Anakin. Lucas clearly had absolutely no idea how to make a connection with Lloyd and furthermore, how to guide him in a convincing performance. Every single line he utters seems like Lucas is telling it to him through a megaphone just off camera. The young Lloyd also suffers due to there being basically being nothing for him to actually interact with.

The true reason we watch a Star Wars film is to escape for two hours and loose ourselves in the inspired characters of his space opera. Lucas does provide some seriously cool creatures to bug out at. One of his neatest is Darth Maul, a relatively quiet Sith with black and red tattoos covering his face and a collection of horns atop his head. Lucas always has dreamed up interesting foes for our heroes to confront and Maul nears the top as one of the best. He is mysterious, acrobatic, and murmurs only a few lines of dialogue. I also took a liking to Darth Sidious, the throaty and flaccid evil emperor who would appear in flickering transmissions. But the show belongs to the one-man killing machine Maul, who faces off against Qui-Gon Gin and Obi Wan set to John Williams’ epic score. The battle between the two Jedi and the Sith is without question one of the best lightsaber battles the saga has.

The Phantom Menace does have its fair share of negatives. The film tries to appeal more to a younger audience rather than the diehard fans, which leads to Lucas adding heavy doses of comic relief and little in the way of true sinister moments. There is a scene where one character is cut in half but it is far from graphic. Lucas gives stale one-liners to Anakin, who has zero comedic timing. Once again, I honestly feel that this is a reflection of the dry personality of Lucas. The other dreadful addition is Jar Jar Binks, who is more infuriating than funny. His character relies on slapstick to cut the tension, but what Lucas forgot to add was the tension. His droid army is supposed to strike fear in our hearts but the Jedi cut through them like paper thrown at them by a baby. The droids almost come close to cute, something a villain should never be. You’ll also find yourself cringing at some of the most poorly written dialogue of all time.

The adventure spirit is alive and well in The Phantom Menace, which narrowly saves it from being downright appalling. For those who follow the saga closely, there will be much to complain about but Lucas will certainly do some right by you. That right comes in the form of classic characters, an expansion on the iconic John Williams score, and an incredibly awesome climatic lightsaber duel. But it is the countless fakery that ruined the new trilogy of Star Wars films. There was such a heavy focus on the merchandise that could be pushed onto kids that it becomes maddening. Many film professors, intellectuals, and brainwashed film students criticize Star Wars for lacking depth. We know what to expect when watching one of these films and that is creativity and thrills. I certainly don’t go in expecting to see a political satire. I go in for the eye candy and The Phantom Menace delivers on that. It just a shame Lucas went overboard with the sugary visuals. Overall, the Force was strong here but sadly, it wasn’t strong enough to make something great.

Grade: B

Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace is now available on Blu-ray and is currently playing at your local theater in 3D.

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