Saturday, June 28, 2008

Because she's got a GREAT ASS!

While volumes have been written about the look of Michael Mann's films, his dialogue is less frequently talked about: compact and economical, Mann's writing is perfectly matched to his images. When Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) tells his his estranged wife Justine (Diane Venora) that "You were right - all I am is what I'm after," the character's essence is captured in ten words. In Mann's world, identity and function are the same - the director defines his characters, as they define themselves, by what they do. This was never truer than with Heat, an epic cops-and-robbers story that has been permanently enshrined as a Maxim-endorsed all-time-classic Guy Movie, a label that doesn't begin to capture its narrative and aesthetic pleasures. Heat is slick, stylish and loaded with guns and fast cars, to be sure, but what's truly remarkable is its fusion of character and action - it's an "action movie" in a way that louder, dumber, less skillfully crafted movies only claim to be.

With its sprawling narrative revolving around Hanna's pursuit of master thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his crew, Heat takes the well-worn notion of cops and criminals representing two sides of the same coin and makes it feel new. Stripped of the iconic (often fetishistic) trappings of the genre, permanently clad in charcoal suits chosen to avoid drawing attention to themselves, opposed in what they're after but the same in their single-minded pursuit of their goals, even as their work makes normal human relationships an impossibility. Together they reside in the shades of dark that make up Mann's palette - the director doesn't turn their relationship into a baroque showdown as Scorsese does in The Departed, his interests focused more on the details of their process. Mann's visual approach is a lesson in how to fuse style and substance, with each camera setup, no matter how bold, is dictated by the performances; there isn't a single false move or a moment that exists solely for the sake of being cool. The scenes following Hanna have a constant motion that mirror his (and Pacino's) restlessness, but De Niro's carefully composed scenes have the actor's focused stillness - rarely have medium shots carried such a kinetic charge. And in the famous diner scene between the two actors, Mann smartly gets out of the way - the coiled intensity that both actors bring to the table as they quietly discuss their mutually assured destruction gives the scene all the fireworks it needs.

The relationship between the leads, however, is just the focus of a story that widens its scope to their intersecting worlds. Mann's structural approach owes more to Robert Altman than John Woo, as characters that would typically exist solely as plot devices are given depth and shape. A supporting character like ex-con Donald Breenan (Dennis Haysbert) is given scenes that allow us to understand him before his role in the plot is defined; this approach used to frustrate me, but now I admire its formal audacity. It's the sort of film that, every time you watch it, you find yourself focusing on different characters; this time, I was mesmerized by Diane Venora as Justine, at once sympathetic and alienated from her husband, and Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd, excellent as a fucked-up, destructive and completely in love couple. Where most cops' wives in these films exist only to worry and complain that the protagonist is never home, Diane Venora is given the space to create a woman who both understands her husband and has needs beyond the restrictions of the plot. Eady, McCauley's girlfriend and the cause of his character's biggest mistake, is the only character in Heat that I don't believe, though this isn't due to the writing as much as it is to Amy Brenneman's bland performance - every time I watch it, I think of how much more interesting the role might have been were it played by Julianne Moore or Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance. But this is a quibble in a film full of great performances, where even peripheral characters like Bud Cort's racist restaurant manager, Tom Noonan's cryptic techie and Natalie Portman as Hanna's emotionally unstable stepdaughter (a role crucial to the film's meaning) are given room to breathe and become something fascinating. The incredible tension that Heat has been praised for goes beyond its louder scenes; it's as palpable in the film's quietest moments, in the distances between people who maintain such a distance because, as Hanna explains, "It keeps my edge."

When that tension does explode, Mann's gifts as an action director have never been more fully realized. The climactic shootout between cops and robbers has a stunning immediacy where other directors would have too many setups and too many cuts in the interest of seeming cool to 13-year-olds. Heat is awesome, but it's also remarkably mature and disciplined; the film's violence is in total service to the story, making us realize just how gratuitious most onscreen bloodletting can be. The centerpiece of the film is clearly its final confrontation, which I will not spell out at in case you haven't seen it, because it's the sort of moment that deserves to be discovered. In this scene, Mann demonstrates an understanding of spatial relations that reminds of Kurosawa - it is the realization of the preceding three hours, sharpened to a fine point and ending in a moment, set to Moby's stirring "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters," that is pure catharsis. When we go to an action movie, we expect to be blown out of our skull, and too often we settle for cheap shots. So it's refreshing to revisit a film committed to illuminating meaning in chaos; Mann's films challenge me to raise my expectations, and the older I get, the stronger and more rewarding they are.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The web of destiny carries your blood and soul back to the genesis of my lifeform.

The following is my contribution to this month's Film Club at Final Girl.

A friend of mine summed up the basic appearance of Lifeforce when he fondly recalled Mathilda May's performance as a naked space vampire as the source of one of his first erections. The first time I saw Lifeforce, around six or seven years old, I was too young to be anything but confused by the camera's constant focus on May's breasts. I knew what sex was, and had a vague idea that adults enjoyed it, but its appeal as anything except a reproductive act was beyond me. Watching Lifeforce at two in the morning on cable (I was an elementary school insomniac), I was vaguely aware that I was seeing something I shouldn't, but I couldn't understand why the movie was more about doing it than space or vampires. The tension between my friend's and my own reactions suggests that Lifeforce, with its uneasy combination of kid-friendly special effects and monsters and near-constant nudity, as a horror movie for adolescent boys faced with the growing suspicion that their penises are about to get them into trouble. As a horror movie, Lifeforce can't compete with the wealth of genre classics (including Day of the Dead, Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead and Fright Night) that opened in 1985. But as porn for Fangoria-reading 13-year-olds, it's pretty great.

Adapted from Colin Wilson's novel Space Vampires, the film opens with a space shuttle mission investigating Halley's comet and discovering an alien spacecraft in the comet's cone. Members of the shuttle's crew, including Col. Tom Carlson (Steve Railsback), are sent in to investigate the craft; its interiors are unmistakably vaginal, so, naturally, the astronauts discover ominous caverns, giant bats and, most curiously, three human-looking aliens in a state of hibernation. By the time the shuttle returns to earth, everyone onboard has died except for Carlson and the humanoids, who use their physical perfection and powers of mind control to seduce humans and drain them of their life force. The aliens turn everyone in their wake into zombies who must either consume the energy of others or suffer a sudden, explosive death. On a pure entertainment level, it's a great concept, allowing for lots of exploding bodies, fantastic optical effects and random kinkiness. But screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby also cannily exploit the story's subtext; it's fun to watch May use her sex appeal to destroy astronauts, scientists, soldiers and other boyish archetypes, and I'd be surprised if they weren't intentionally playing to their young male audience's anxieities (O'Bannon, after all, wrote for Heavy Metal). One of the funniest moments in Lifeforce is when Col. Crane (Peter Firth) is asked if his encounter with the space girl was sexual in nature and he responds, fearfully, "Yes - overwhelmingly so."

Unfortunately, Lifeforce never finds the right tongue-in-cheek tone that O'Bannon or his Dark Star collaborator John Carpenter might have brought to the film. Tobe Hooper's direction is aimless and, by the film's apocalyptic end, chaotic - the movie's style is far too heavyhanded to work on the B-movie level that a movie originally titled Space Vampires demands to be taken at. If Hooper is to be believed, the pressure of his producers at Cannon Films is to be blamed, as they saw Lifeforce as a chance to break out with an effects-packed summer tentpole. And while the film looks marvellous (courtesy of Star Wars' John Dykstra), the scale of it is oppressive; it's bloated and overlong, and too preoccupied with its fireworks to remember why its funny. As kitsch Lifeforce is a blast, but it could have been a classic had everyone involved remembered to breathe. In Hooper's defense, he did achieve a darkly comic sensibility the next year with Invaders From Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 that would have worked perfectly here; sadly, after all three films flopped, he was prematurely sent to direct-to-video hell.

It's a shame, because even though Lifeforce doesn't really work, it's stranger and more interesting than 90% of the big-budget attempts at riding the coattails of Star Wars and Alien. Where else are you going to see Patrick Stewart kiss Steve Railsback, or Mr. Deltoid from A Clockwork Orange explode? Lifeforce is what friend and Samurai Dreams contributor James fondly refers to as a "buds 'n' suds movie," one best enjoyed with a few beers and friends sharp enough to laugh at the movie's fear of teen horniness. When Lifeforce reaches its totally 80's (i.e., coked-out), seizure-inducing wet dream of an ending, it triumphs as an affirmation of the cosmic-scale creative and destructive force of the boner. I don't really have a way to wrap this up; I just hope that last sentence ends up on a DVD case.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I put a bird in my hair.

I was having a drink with my friends Kate and Chris before going to see Sex and the City. When Chris referred to Kristin Davis' character Charlotte as "the hottest," I went into a tired, frustrated rant about why Charlotte and "bagging the virgin" fantasies are boring. Kate interrupted me, asking, "Is Miranda your favorite?" And she was right - I think Miranda's swell, and I'm not quite sure how she guessed this or what it says about me. Sex and the City's primary appeal is as a Rorschach test and a conversation starter; most of the time when people are talking about the show, they end up relating it to their own relationship issues. Though the show was often clunky, its four characters validated the concerns of many women (and a few men secure enough to admit it), and as a believer in the therapuic potential of pop culture, I admired it. So it's a shame that the Sex and the City movie completely misses what makes the show so popular; on the subjects of sex, marriage, parenthood and single life, it's remarkably tone-deaf. And this is not just the biased response of a dude for whom the movie wasn't intended; Kate, who couldn't wait to see it, left disappointed and slightly angry.

The movie reunites us to the show's protagonists in the midst of their thematically complimentary dramas, with Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) engaged and then jilted by corpulent ass Mr. Big (Chris Noth); Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Steve's (David Eigenberg) marriage threatened by infidelity; Charlotte finally pregnant; and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) in L.A. and torn between her relationship and her horniness (not a crime). Enough fodder for a few 30-minute episodes of the show, yet at two and a half hours, Sex and the City feels both bloated and rushed, so busy to get from one dick gag or fashion montage to the next that it completely forgets what made these characters relatable in the first place. Charlotte's fear of losing her baby, for instance, would have been the subject of an entire episode, but instead it's quickly dismissed. No time for character development, after all, when you have to make room for poo jokes, humping dogs and a calculated, patronizing supporting turn by Jennifer Hudson as Carrie's new assistant Louise, who announces that the main thing in life is love, a point writer/director Michael Patrick King drives home with a close-up of Louise's ghetto-fabulous "LOVE" key chain. The whole thing is so bland and ill-conceived that it almost seems to be making fun of its own audience, pelting us with ridiculous costumes and a fleeting shot of a large penis while taunting, "Are you not entertained?"

Maybe King missed what made the show work, or maybe it just doesn't play on the big screen; either way, it's obvious how uninvolved the leads are. The women just don't have the same chemistry anymore; I don't want to guess at off-screen reasons for this, but it gives the movie an unintended sad subtext, like these ladies should have parted ways a while ago but nobody wants to be the one to say it. Davis has turned Charlotte into a crazy lady and a cautionary tale for young women who think they can cruise on cuteness forever, but then, I always hated Charlotte. This pains me as someone who has repeatedly defended Sarah Jessica Parker's looks and talent, but her performance is bound to be almost as big a camp classic as Joan Crawford's in Mommy Dearest. Acutely, self-consciously aware she's the lead in a movie a lot of people are going to see, Parker plays Carrie's generic post-breakup plotline like she's in an Ingmar Bergman film, weeping and staring tragically into the distance for most of the movie; I kept waiting for one of her friends to slap her, but it never happened. The movie's hostility is reserved for Samantha - judging by her treatment here, shipped off to L.A. and given little to do except tolerate repeated jabs at her age and weight, I think it's safe to say that everyone involved hates Kim Cattrall. Samantha's as watered-down as the rest of the movie; how much closer to the show's edginess would the movie be if the gang sparked a joint, or engaged in serious discussion about some very specific sexual practice? Take those moments out, and any semblance of wit or insight, and you're left with ladies in silly dresses. With this in mind, I fail to see why it's the movie's critics, and not the movie itself, being labelled as sexist.

However, yes, I do love Miranda, or more accurately, Cynthia Nixon. I love that in every one of her scenes, you can tell that she knows just how bad this movie is and she wants it to end as badly as you do. I love that, when her costars are all self-important about doing sex scenes in a movie called Sex and the City, she has a surprisingly graphic love scene with Eigenberg; her confidence in the face of ageism is admirable, and - sorry, Chris - she really is the hottest. And I love that she takes her stupid subplot and, next to Parker's overemoting, finds real emotion underneath the surface. There's a moment between Steve and Miranda towards the end that moved me a little bit and managed, on the strength of the performances, to evoke the bittersweet romantic appeal of New York. Sadly, the rest is poo poo, boner and stupid shoes.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stan Winston (1942-2008)

I feel like a part of my childhood died today. For anyone whose early infatuation with the movies was stoked by his fantastic creations, the death of Stan Winston represents the passing of a giant in special effects. Winston's makeup and visual effects work over the course of more than 30 years, in both practical and CGI, gave us some of the most iconic creatures and moments in cinema. Below are just a few of his most memorable achievements, each an example of Winston's seemingly magical ability to transform a filmmaker's wildest flights of imagination into a breathtaking reality.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hear me, believe me and fear me!

My first and only act of theft, at the age of four, was shoplifting the novelization of Rambo III from the local Osco Drug (I was caught immediately and cried many guilty tears). I'm not sure why I so urgently needed the book, or why exactly I idoloized John Rambo at such a young age. I was never much into G.I. Joe or other war toys; I think I valued Rambo as a mythic, larger-than-life figure like other preschool heroes Conan, He-Man and Lion-O. It'd be easy to write off the Rambo series as strictly for kids who are oblivious to the films' politics - at once fascist and extreme libertarian - and how the Teutonic awesomeness of Stallone's monosyllabic god of war serves to silence all debate about Vietnam and its aftermath more nuanced than "They wouldn't let us win!" But while Rambo, the roughest, goriest and loudest entry in the series, is as politically nuanced as a Toby Keith anthem, it shares with its predecessors an earnestness that keeps it from being truly offensive. Whether it's reasonable to describe a movie featuring several dozen exploding heads as "earnest," I'll leave up to you.

Concerned (like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) with the fate of a distinctly '80s icon who has outlived his time, Rambo finds the titular character (Sylvester Stallone) living a solitary existence as a snake wrangler in Thailand. In the two decades since Rambo III, Rambo has become even more pissed-off and withdrawn (his first line is "fuck off"), but after a group of missionaries asks him to take them upriver to Myanmar, he's naturally forced back into action. Stallone has said while promoting Rambo that he hopes the movie will bring attention to the atrocities in Burma, and the graphic documentary footage that opens Rambo makes for a surprisingly sobering reintroduction to the character. At the same time, Myanmar is one of the few morally black-and-white conflicts Stallone could have deposited the character into; he doesn't completely exploit this fact, but Rambo is certainly driven by a nostalgia for the righteous kill. In simplifying a real-life war zone, Stallone's script feels like it was scrawled in red marker by a hyperactive, antisocial thirteen-year-old; bad guys threaten not just to violate an attractive female missionary (Julie Benz) but to "rape her fifty times," and the head baddie warns that "I will feed you your own intestines!" Pop icons can carry powerful political subtext, of course, but when treated this literally it's as effective as Spider-Man crying at ground zero.

Luckily, Stallone's newfound social awareness has also motivated him to reach new levels of absurd, gratuitous blood and guts. In one interview, Stallone explained that Rambo's over-the-top violence was necessary to match the realism of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down; I don't know if he believes his film is as serious-minded as those (Jonathan Rosenbaum might prefer it to the others), but it's interesting to see how his aim of realism has actually pushed Rambo closer to the grindhouse than its predecessors. With its rough, shaky-cam images of exploding bodies, severed limbs and disfigured corpses, Rambo is less like any war movie I've seen than a straightforward splatter movie. And the increasingly hulking, monolithic Stallone reminds more of an '80s slasher icon than the greased, permed model of Regan-endorsed homoeroticism we've seen before. He's a product, like the rest of Rambo, of an aging action star's id, and the unapologetic bloodlust on display has seemingly liberated Stallone; this is the crudest Rambo movie, but while First Blood is the only one I could call "good" with a straight face, Rambo is by far the most fun.

Another hint at Rambo's appeal to kids can be found in Son of Rambow, Garth Jennings' ode to his own VHS-era youth. In Rambow, set in early-'80s England, a pirated copy of First Blood inspires young Will (Bill Milner) and Lee (Will Poulter) to create their own action epic. Jennings nails the kids' apolitical attraction to the character; for Lee, the movie is simply one he can imitate to win a filmmaking contest, while Will, a small, awkward kid raised in a sheltered religious community, finds in Rambo a figure through which he can vicariously express his repressed pre-adolescent rage. Jennings lovingly recreates this early era of DIY filmmaking, and his nostalgia is infectious. Rambow's story is a bit thin, perhaps, but the heartfelt depiction of the central friendship, and its urging of its young audience to tell (or retell) the stories that matter to them, won me over. So if you have a kid who becomes fascinated with the Rambo cover art in the same way I was with that awesome EMI video box for First Blood Part II, rent them this instead - it's just as fun, with none of the nightmares.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Trim Bin #70

- Cartoonist, landlord and friend Howard Cruse reports in his blog on the social event of 2008: Luna's first birthday party.

- An unnamed writer at Master of Sopranos (via The House Next Door) presents a comprehensive, very persuasive argument for why, as the author writes, "Tony's death is the only ending that makes sense."

- J.J.'s appreciation of Liza Minelli at As Little As Possible makes me feel a bit better about that disappointed look Jess gave me once when she walked in on me watching Liza with a Z.

- Lauren Wissot writes about the sadomasochistic scene between Lula and Bobby Peru at Wild at Heart. I'd always read the scene as a rape, but Wissot's made me reconsider it as an even darker and thornier version of the "baby wants to fuck" scene in Blue Velvet.

- Last night I stumbled upon a clip from Trent Harris' The Beaver Trilogy, one of the last great underground movies that, due to rights issues, has remained truly underground (though, according to the comments here, you can buy a copy from Harris through his website). If you don't know what The Beaver Trilogy is, I'm not going to say any more, except that you should watch this scene - tell me this isn't a movie you need to see:

Sunday, June 08, 2008

You are stupid and will never understand anything.

I must admit that, until Cinevistarascope reader Vodalus requested that I review Lancelot du Lac, I'd been putting off delving deeper into the films of Robert Bresson. The first Bresson film I'd seen, Diary of a Country Priest, left me admiring it on a purely intellectual level but strangely indifferent to its dry style and dour, monotonous story - as Michael Haneke would say, it just wasn't a film I needed. It's never fun to be dismissive, particularly when you're up against fifty-plus years of praise, so I decided that Bresson and I should take a break. But while the style of Lancelot du Lac, Bresson's minimalist version of the Arthurian legend, is nearly identical, the contrast between subject and method is fascinating. Bresson's deliberately austere approach to the film does to the Knights of the Round Table what his American contemporaries Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman did to the western, stripping away any cinematic mythologizing in favor of a stunning emotional directness.

Focusing on Lancelot's (Luc Simon) affair with Guinevere (Laura Duke Condomnias) and the effect it has on the kingdom, Bresson's film is completely absent any of the sharp visual iconography of Excalibur or the machismo of King Arthur. We're first introduced to the knights, as with Polanski's Macbeth, in the wake of a battle - there is no heroism or glory underscoring the scene, just blood and silence. Bresson avoids imposing a familiar dramatic arc on his narrative, finding a reality in the characters as they're liberated from the weight of their mythologies. We only see Arthur (Vladimir Antolek-Oresek) as the distant, unknowable authority figure that Lancelot would see him as. What drives the film, and seemingly interests Bresson most, is the connection between Lancelot and Guinevere. As both characters idelize their relationship in dialogue, Bresson's probing camera finds instead a barely restrained need; this is the first Arthurian movie I've seen that uses the affair not for melodrama but as an archetypal model of desire. While Bresson famously directed his actors to downplay any emotion, this restraint gives the affair a stronger charge than a roll in the hay would have. Like Lancelot in his story, Bresson is perhaps expressing his own desire in the lingering shots of his lead actress' body, just as quickly cutting away and denying himself. This tension gives Lancelot du Lac a powerful erotic charge, albeit of a particularly masochistic sort.

The emphasis on physicality extends to every aspect of the film's design. The clanking of the knights' armor is always audible on the soundtrack, a constant reminder of the cumbersome nature of their own symbols. And Bresson repeatedly lingers on places, like the backs of the knights' legs, where they are vulnerable - we are never able to escape their mortality through the promise of immortality given by storytelling, and this draws us more strongly to their humanity. Honor is an arbitrary concept the knights live by in order to give a sense of meaning to their existence; for Bresson, this is pure theatricality, particularly in an extended sequence revolving around a joust. Repeating the same shot sequence multiple times - ominous fanfare, the knights' legs astride a horse, semi-interested spectators as something happens offscree, hints of an aftermath - while denying us the payoff of "action," Bresson makes our need for a violent resolution obvious through its absent. We're being indicted for our own passivity, and I might resent that if it weren't for the sequence's elegance.

Bresson's approach is nothing if not rigorous - the film's 80-minute running time limits the narrative's scope to this brief moment in the Arthurian myth before it is interrupted by death. The final moments mirror the film's opening, the two scenes serving as grim bookends to the film. I was reminded of the final title card of Barry Lyndon; as in that film, death serves as a great equalizer. Like all great minimalist artists, Bresson uses the spaces between moments that would normally be filled with his dreaded "theatricality" to argue for their relative meaninglessness. It's bracing stuff, but even if doesn't reflect one's own understanding of life, Lancelot du Lac challenges the viewer to see things as they are. I can't wait to see what else Bresson has to say.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Play the Game (5/5/08)

I like Ike.

It's always hilarious when the sequel to a blockbuster announces its elevated self-importance - think of the final scene of Back to the Future replayed at the start of Part II with newfound gravitas (complete with a swooping crane shot), or pretentious, "November Rain"-esque opening images of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Interestingly, the Indiana Jones sequels have gone in the opposite direction, from the brilliantly out-of-left-field musical number that opens Temple of Doom, to the Hardy Boys-style mini-adventure in Last Crusade, and finally to the opening shot of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a brilliantly corny dissolve from the 70's/80's Paramount logo to a literal molehill. What others read as contempt for the audience I just took as a joke, one that finds Indy's creators admitting what you are about to see is fogyish, square and (at a time when biggest and loudest seemingly equals best) relatively small. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is about and a product of the tension between the old and new, nostalgia and modern sensibilities, a filmmaker's past and present, analog and digital. In attempting to straddle 1981 and the present, number four is an old man of a movie - cranky, a little bloated around the middle, and chock full of wisdom. And, for what it's worth, it had me smiling from beginning to end.

By setting the story in the '50s, with Commies and Drapes replacing wartime intrigue, Spielberg and Lucas don't shy away from the 19-year gap between movies. The shift in time periods is more than an opportunity for Lucas to wax nostalgic about the American Graffiti days; the transition is immediately and delibarely jarring, as we're reintroduced to to a Dr. Jones who is increasingly mystified not by any artifact but by the passage of time. The movie's high point arrives early on, as Indy's wildly improbable escape from a nuclear test site culminates in a stunning, already-iconic image, the sequence illustrating Indy's two greatest adversarities - modernity and domesticity. Indy must confront the latter when his search for the interdimensional artifact leads him to discover the son (Shia LaBeouf) he didn't know he had and the woman (Karen Allen) he'd run away from. What's surprising about Spielberg's return to father-son territory is that it doesn't feel remotely heavy here - it appears that Spielberg is finally done with some of these issues, and is comfortable enough to poke some fun at himself. It seems Spielberg, who for all the "Peter Pan" criticisms has pushed himself towards maturity more than any of his detractors, is ready to inherit the elder statesman hat. And he wears it well - this is Spielberg's most Fordian (John, not Harrison) of movies, a large-scale entertainment with an adult's sense of perspective.

It's clear that, as with Last Crusade, Spielberg's interest is more in the familial dynamic than with the artifact in question, and it's here that Crystal Skull falters a bit. In a way, I preferred that the focus wasn't so much on the shiny object (the materialism of such a plot device was sort of taken for granted in Reagan's America), but David Koepp's script does fail to tie the object to the film's themes in the same way that its predecessors did. The presence of aliens makes sense both chronologically and as a nod to some of Spielberg's best work, but it still feels sort of unconnected to the rest of the movie, although Cate Blanchett's pageboy-sporting villian was the best since Belloq (also, as with I'm Not There, strangely attractive). At the same time, I didn't mind that it was sort of meandering - I liked the margins, like John Hurt's cartoonishly mad Professor Oxley and the sharp banter between Indy and Marion Ravenwood (their reunion is pitch-perfect, and Karen Allen is clearly having a blast). There are a few things that don't work - Ray Winstone is wasted in a lame role, and the monkeys are a little too much for me - but they never feel pandering or overcalculated in the way that other series revivals can (no Bantha doo-doo here). An ant attack scene that left me wanting to see real creepy-crawlies aside, the movie isn't overrun by CGI, and the action is as smart as ever. These are films defined by motion, and while Indy takes a little more time getting from A to B than he used to, Michael Bays and Jon Turteltaubs of the world would do well to pay attention - this is how you film frenetic action and keep it coherent.

While most of the buzz around Crystal Skull has revolved around the question of how a 65-year-old Ford would do as Indy (good as ever, you damn whippersnappers!), the more interesting question for me was how Spielberg would return to pure escapism after two decades where even his popcorn films have a newfound social awareness and aesthetic complexity. The resulting movie is one that eagerly tries to give the audience what it wants but is perpetually looking forward - it's a lark, but one of surprising thematic heft. It's not Raiders of the Lost Ark - few movies will ever thrill me the way that seeing Raiders on a huge screen at Loews Boston Common did - and it's not going to please anyone, particularly those primed to dismiss anything Spielberg does. Still, when the release of Crystal Skull, as any new Spielberg movie does, got people talking again about Willie Scott and "Kick the Can" and the last 15 minutes of A.I., I got to thinking about how funny it is that even his detractors remember scenes and moments in such detail so many years later.