Category Archives: 2018 Reviews

The Case Against “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

I rewatched Raiders of the Lost Ark as if I had never seen it before. After all, it had been a good 20 years, if not longer. As I approached the idea, I was trepidatious. Raiders was a favorite growing up and I didn’t want to tarnish the memory somehow. The idea, however, would not go away. For days I poured over dozens of reviews and, apart from a rare exception, Raiders enjoyed the kind of all-encompassing adoration that few other classics have managed to attain. It seemed to me like an exaggeration, like the reviews, many of which were written within the last 10-15 years, looked at Raiders with nostalgia for a simpler time in Hollywood. After all, it was the beginning of the 1980s, a period in which mainstream cinema took a turn, giving way to the summer blockbuster and to all-encompassing silliness. Perhaps, I thought, Raiders of the Lost Ark had ceased to become “just” a film, in order to transform into a cultural touchstone for people who came of age around the early 1980s.

When navigating reviews I encountered statements like “the greatest action-adventure film of all-time”, or other more nuanced if still hyperbolic comments like “has any film done a better job at introducing its major characters?”. Even with the muddled memory of the film that I had, I could not make a connection between the enjoyable Indiana Jones of my childhood and this revered cinematic object.

Raiders of the Lost Ark combined the cinematic bravura of Steven Spielberg at the director’s chair, and the unique talent of George Lucas as a writer and producer to distill large projects into manageable and intimate human stories. The character of Indiana Jones, forever tied to Harrison Ford, is neither a cartoonish version of a man nor an archetype. He is like the cooler version of Cary Grant in North by Northwest, replacing the suit and tie with a leather jacket and a hat that screams adventure. Instead of the spy or the lawyer or the government agent that was so preeminent in Hollywood during the Cold War, Jones was an anthropologist, a profession that had never before (or since) been romanticized in the big screen. Jones was a superhero without superpowers, a Superman without a cape incapable of reversing time, but able to take down an entire Nazi division through sheer fearless determination, a whip, and a gun.

While Han Solo (the other iconic character played by Ford years earlier) had the rebellious and independent attitude that Indiana Jones also demonstrated, Jones’ goals were a lot clearer and demonstrable. He sought treasures of civilization to protect them and, in doing so, he fought against forces of evil who sought them for less than noble causes.

I would argue that, in fact, the best thing about the film is “Indy”, interpreted by an actor at the peak of his powers. Ford, a blockbuster powerhouse through the decades, was unfairly equated to his roles and the types of projects he was a part of. He was seen by many as an attraction rather than a very good performer. Though most of the roles that brought him fame did not demand a great deal of range, something has to be said of a man that turned nearly every character he embodied into cultural icons. The weight of Ford is that we, as the audience, cannot separate him from his various contributions. There is no other Indiana Jones, as there will be no other convincing Han Solo (see the new Solo: A Star Wars Story for an example), nor a Rick Deckhard (a role he effectively reprised in last year’s Blade Runner 2049). Ford gave Indiana Jones charisma to sell, a smile to make anyone melt, and a confidence to make a hat and a whip look like acceptable parts of an outfit.

The first ten to fifteen minutes of Raiders are rightfully legendary. The sequence in the jungle highlights everything the series did well. It pitted Jones not against people, but against an obstacle course of sorts that has inspired a vast array of films, videogames (Tomb Raider and Uncharted to name just a couple) and other types of media. It made him the kind of explorer we would all like to be: strong, intuitive and fearless. Jones’ introduction to the world in shadow as powerful an image as Spielberg has ever created for the big screen.

Despite the film’s astute construction, which successfully took us on a trip around the world, Raiders of the Lost Ark suffered dearly as it progressed. For instance, I never bought into Ford’s professorial life. The whole act felt stiff and lifeless, perhaps intentionally, but it did not quite give me enough about Jones’ gentler and more mannered side to really sell me on that part of his personality.

Some of the film’s action montages haven’t aged well. As accomplished a director as Spielberg has been, some of those scenes suffer from what I call directorial ingenuity. Though ambitious and impressive as an idea, the staging, composition and timing of some of the action sequences is questionable. An example of this is a sequence in which Jones must fight off a couple of Nazi soldiers as a armed airplane slowly rotates on a platform. The whole thing, from beginning to end, is largely unexciting, without any of the cinematic magic that a film like Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (released in 1951) was able to give to a similar climactic battle between its hero and villain atop a carousel as it frantically spun out of control.

Though there are moments in which Raiders is able to win us over, every bit of awesomeness is followed by clunky set pieces, where the intent, as written on paper, does not quite match the result. A perfect example of this comes in the last act where Indiana Jones and his love interest, the feisty Marion Ravenwood (played by Karen Allen), find themselves trapped inside an Egyptian temple inundated with snakes (Indy’s least favorite animal). At first, it is the sort of scene that seems like the perfect choice for a thriller filled with marquee moments, but that is unimpressive as a whole due to its clunky execution.

Albeit understandable that scenes like those would be somewhat messy in a B-movie type of way, Raiders took itself seriously enough to leave me wishing the details were a bit more ironed out and polished.

Yet, as I reread my post and I try to reach a conclusion about the film, I try to remind myself of the context. Indiana Jones was released in 1981, a moment in time where a thriller of this magnitude was much more of a herculean task than it is today. If we are to judge by the same metric, a similar thing can be said of George Lucas’ own magnum opus: Star Wars: A New Hope, which in 1977 managed, beyond all expectation, to crack the cinematic glass ceiling of possibility. Even today, the B-movie type script of Star Wars tells little of the end product since Lucas’ vision, which he had been dreaming for many years, was much grander and spectacular than the script could ever hope to describe.

As demonstrated by the recent HBO-produced documentary on Steven Spielberg simply called “Spielberg”, Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t a “passion project” for neither Lucas nor Steven. As the story goes it was George, fresh of his unexpected Star Wars success, who reached out to his friend Steven with an idea and an opportunity to bounce back after the calamitous failure of Spielberg’s previous effort: 1924.

It is this the reason why perhaps Raiders of the Lost Ark feels a little soulless to me. It feels like a film where two friends stumbled upon an idea that, with their talent and their sense of timing turned into something culturally significant. It was, when compared to their other efforts, a much more laissez faire undertaking, where “fun” and “adventure”, however clumsily or nonsensical, were prioritized over all other concerns.

New rating: 3/5

Months in Review: March & April films (part 2)

Continued from the previous post.

Below my thoughts on the films I watched in April.

I, TONYA (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

After two hours of film, I could not assert whether I, Tonya is an empathetic reevaluation of Tonya Harding, or an exploitative character study. On the surface it seems to try to sympathize with the former Olympian, but every tragic and horrible moment of her early years is accompanied by a snarky attitude or a redneck generalization. So, for every bit of information that expands and dispels the tabloid image of Harding, there is a feeling that the film is having too much fun with the material at the expense of its subjects.

Continue reading Months in Review: March & April films (part 2)

Months in Review: films of March & April (part 1)

In a year that has so far given us so many things to talk, argue and worry about, there was one thing everyone in Chicago seemed to agree on: Winter needed to end. So, here we are, after a reluctantly cold and snowy April, finally enjoying the first gush of summer breeze moments before the Groundhog was forced to quit its less than admirable job.

When it comes to the movies, both March and April were fruitful, having caught up with 20 new films in total, 10 on each month. Out of those 20 only 4 received a 4 out of 5 rating or higher, of which Isle of Dogs, Call Me by Your Name and Florida Project will be considered as candidates to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Top 250 Essential Films.

Continue reading Months in Review: films of March & April (part 1)

Months in review: films, Academy Awards, #Metoo and a rough start to 2018 (part 2)

This is a continuation of my previous post. Below my short impressions on the films I watched in February.


There is a lot to love about this charming animated film. It is, after all, capable of building a world that is beautiful, interesting and new. There is, however, a problem in its execution, rushing through its story without giving the characters their due.

Without the kind of promotion that usually backs a feature-length animated film these days, Mune shows both sides of Hollywood: one willing to give opportunities to unconventional ideas, and one that, upon second look, decides to withdraw its support to cut a potential loss at the box office.

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) [ 3.5/5 ]

Finally caught up with one of many blindspots that had gathered plenty of dust in my must-watch list for many years.

The film owes much of its success and continued relevance to the effortless elegance of Audrey Hepburn, who captured the imagination of the public back in the early 1960s with what I call “casual sexiness”. In the wake of the country’s sexual liberation, it is well documented that Truman Capote, the author of the novel the film is based on, wanted Marilyn Monroe for the lead role, but the studio sought a less racy image, taking on subjects like prostitution with a casual, almost lighthearted tone. In doing so, Breakfast at Tiffanny’s surprisingly succeeded, becoming an American film with an European flavor where subjects that were still taboo in Hollywood were suddenly made appetible due to an approachable script and the lightheartedness of the performances.

45 YEARS (2015) [ 4/5 ]

After watching the austere realism of 45 Years, I felt I needed a comedic and hopelessly romantic cleanse. This is a story about a loving marriage that has survived the years until a letter arrives at the mail to disrupt it, eating away at its foundations day by day, and reminding us of the fragility of love and companionship.

The film is a minimal and naturalistic effort by director Andrew Haigh, whose previous work also includes the touching gay romance Weekend. In 45 Years, the camerawork is intimate yet unobtrusive, acting like a respectful window into a marriage that hints at its ever-increasing troubles.

Though interested in the marriage as a whole, 45 Years is singularly focused on Charlotte Rampling’s beautifully nuanced and naturalistic performance as Kate Mercer.

The remarkable thing about the film is that we see the marriage crumble not through big gestures, or through a series of sudden discoveries, but through Kate’s gradual realization that everything about their long relationship may have been a farce.

Heartbreaking stuff.

DARKEST HOUR (2017) [ 3/5 ]

There used to be a time not long ago when films like Darkest Hour would get my wholehearted approval. It is, after all, a movie that hits most of the right notes, with a superb lead performance by Gary Oldman, a cinematography that gives the film gravitas, and a script that remains interesting throughout.

The problem with Darkest Hour lies in its tendency to overstate and overdo, coming across as typical Oscar bait. Though Oldman’s performance is exactly what the film asked for, his cadence, mannerisms and conversations are all driven by the director’s attempt to give Churchill’s most crucial moments as the UK’s Prime Minister all the weight and importance history has assigned them. Rarely does Darkest Hour take a step back to reveal the man behind the myth, but when it does, the film does manage to be poignant.

THE DOUBLE (2011) [ 1.5/5 ]

On a recent roundtable for the Hollywood Reporter the acclaimed director Ridley Scott suggested that the first indication he looks for when reading scripts is that the names given to the characters work. In The Double, the name “Cassius” is used at least twenty times to refer to a mysterious Soviet assassin who has resurfaced after years of inactivity. Like the unintentionally comedic name it constantly repeats, the rest of the film feels like an immature and unimaginative attempt to make a spy thriller with very little intrigue.

Typically I am not quick to criticize actors, but both Richard Gere and Topher Grace are absolutely terrible here, while the talent of Martin Sheen is utterly wasted in a completely forgettable role.

IRREPLACEABLE YOU (2018) [ 2.5/5 ]

Much like Darkest Hour felt like Oscar bait, this Netflix Original film doubles down on melodrama to stimulate our tear ducts.

One of several problems with the film is that I felt more of a connection to the cross-generational friendship that develops between Abbie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s) and Myron (a charming Christopher Walken), than to the lovers our hearts should break for.

As sweet as Irreplaceable You can be, the film’s central premise is far-fetched and poorly conceived. It does not help that I never bought into the central love story since the leads spend very little time together on screen and have little chemistry when they do.

LADY BIRD (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

As a piece of writing, Lady Bird has very few equals in the 2017 film class.

Greta Gerwig’s semi-biographical script has the quality that many only wish to have: it feels genuine and true. Every character at the center of the story is a complex array of emotions and contradictions. A very good Saoirse Ronan plays the title role as a young girl that is, like most teens, both egocentric and empathetic, emotional and distant, rebellious and nostalgic. Her eyes filled with youthful energy and hope, but also with plenty of doubt and angst. Her mother, in a career-best performance by Laurie Metcalf, is an antagonist of sorts, except that she displays her love through disapproval and discipline.

Gerwig’s writing avoids the common pitfalls of the genre, avoiding cliche at every turn, but it is often too precise a script to allow enough room for the characters to unshackle themselves from the overarching design.

Let’s just say that I was conscious of the decisions Greta Gerwig was making with her story right as she was making them, only allowing emotion to overpower the screen on a couple of occasions. I wish the story felt a bit more organic.

BLACK PANTHER (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

Ryan Coogler’s treatment of Marvel’s Black Panther is a confident and promising stamp in the overstuffed genre of the superhero film. Coogler has made a film not just about a black superhero, but about an entire country filled with heroes who could teach a thing or two to the rest of the world. The script, based on the original comic, is rich with details that contribute to world-building and that make its social metaphors all the more effective.

Though much of the film offers plenty to “marvel” at, Coogler’s inexperience handling and staging big action sequences hurt the film, lacking the kind of finesse and kinetic energy than other directors could have accomplished with the material. Still, narratively speaking, Coogler’s adaptation of the Marvel comic is perhaps the best that has been produced for the big screen.

GOOD TIME (2017) [ 4/5 ]

The Safdie brothers, co-directors of the frenetically-paced Good Time have made their name in indie circles with micro-budget passion projects that are described as bold examples of guerrilla filmmaking, often self-funded and shot on location without permits.

The difference between those projects and Good Time is that on this occasion, a young movie star, a surprisingly riveting Robert Pattison, attached itself to the Safdie brothers, giving the project enough clout and exposure to be seen and funded, albeit modestly.

The film reminded me of a young Scorsese or Cassavetes film. It has some of the inelegant and unfiltered 1970s quality that grounds it to reality.

The actors are not the kind that you would typically associate to a feature film with the exception of Pattison, whose dirty and disheveled appearance doesn’t completely hide his natural magnetism. He is both hero and antihero, constantly surprising us, hinting at decency, but ultimately doomed by the impulsiveness of his decisions.

Good Time is also the kind of filmmaking I crave: completely unique and unpretentious, with clear intentions and a distinct point of view. The paranoia and near-brilliant survival instincts of Pattison’s Connie Nikas are entirely palpable and, at times, the film proves to be overwhelming to watch.

I can’t wait to see what is next for the Safdie brothers.

Thanks for reading.

Months in review: films, Academy Awards, #Metoo and a rough start to 2018 (part 1)

After some minor health issues that have marked the beginning of my 2018, I am pleased to be able to come back to this blog if not with perfect health, at least with the knowledge that my afflictions are fixable and temporary.

I return with optimism because great changes at a personal level may come in 2018 should everything go well and I stay focused.

On the 90th Academy Awards…

Last week also brought us the 90th edition of the Academy Awards, which were, in my humble opinion, better than usual, both as a television event and as driver of taste in film. Though I did not agree with some of the choices, specially with the Best Picture category, I cannot say I was frustrated with any of the winners, which were all good and worthy films.

My favorite moment of the night goes to Jordan Peele’s victory for his stupendous work writing Get Out’s script. It was not only a historic win for African American filmmaking, but a genuinely moving moment where Peele seemed to be overwhelmed by the impact of his success.

On the #metoo movement…

I must admit, when the allegations began to extend beyond Harvey Weinstein, I recoiled.

As a man it had never occurred to me that women could and should aspire to live in a world where they don’t have to constantly be the subject of unwanted advances or unkind remarks. It was, in all honesty, a total lack of imagination on my part. We must no longer accept the status quo and disregard the point of view of many women who were put in impossible and grotesque situations by unscrupulous men in positions of power.

There are, however, important differences between the cases. While Weinstein is a despicable human by all accounts who used his power to abuse, harass and even rape (allegedly), there are cases like that of Gary Oldman (who won an Oscar this past weekend) who was publicly accused of domestic violence by an ex-wife in the weeks leading to the Academy Awards. Oldman has never had to fight against any other similar allegations, and was never criminally accused by his wife. Now, I’m not saying it did not happen. What I am saying is that I am not sure if the allegations immediately disqualify him from being a recipient of an Oscar, which some people seemed to suggest. Though we want justice and are right to publicly denounce sexual abuse, there is a fine balance between exposure and holding public trials that make it impossible for the accused to exercise their right to work.

Everyone, regardless of the crime they are being accused of, should be able to have their day in court and, in my opinion, it’s not fair to destroy their public image as soon as one person accuses them of any wrongdoing.

I believe most of the allegations leveled at many famous men in Hollywood, but should we really oppose their right to work? Is inappropriate sexual behavior (which is different than assault or rape) enough of a reason to ban them from working ever again? Are convicted felons not granted the same right after they complete their sentences?

Let’s hope that this is only the beginning and that men, including myself, start to fully assume the responsibility to challenge the status quo and declare that “Time is Up!”.

On the last two months of film watching…

As you would expect, my film watching has suffered in 2018. I’ve made space for film, but not as much as I did at the beginning of 2017. Unfortunately, there are many other priorities competing for time and attention, and films will continue to be a privilege in the foreseeable future.

Having said that, January proved to be quite meaningful in that I watched two films, Phantom Thread and Akira, that I loved so much I immediately had to canonize them under the banner of my yet-to-be-published Blog of Big Ideas’ 250 Essential Films. I shall cover the films I watched in February on an upcoming post.

SAVING MR. BANKS (2013) [ 3.5/5 ]

For a film made by Walt Disney Pictures, Saving Mr. Banks pays little deference to the nearly mythical aura that surrounds one of America’s most enduring success stories: the man whose name and signature built the biggest film studio on Earth.

Instead, Saving Mr. Banks is about the writer of the beloved Mary Poppins, played by Emma Thompson. The film explores the difficult and sometimes confrontational relationship between the studio and the artist, which was apparently much worse than portrayed. The film gives us interesting insights about the creative process but, more interestingly, it draws parallels between the writer’s traumatic childhood and the creation of an iconic character.

Ultimately, what I took away was the film’s facile Disney-style sweetness, which came to the fore when the artist behind Mary Poppins finally allowed herself to make the emotional connection to the unlikely genesis of her art: a traumatic childhood.

MACHO (2016) [ 1.5/5 ]

The occasional laughter that is the consequence of such a moronic comedy is quickly erased by Macho’s mishandling of its message of inclusion and acceptance. The film manages to be offensive and reductive from almost its first scene to the last.

The rating could easily be lower, but I don’t think the film was made with bad intentions.

THE FITS (2015) [ 3.5/5 ]

Rather than a feature film, The Fits feels like a surrealist documentary about a little girl who trades the boxing gloves for dancing shoes at her local community center. When she does, each girl in the troupe gets affected by a mysterious affliction, thinning the group away one by one.

Up-and-coming director Ana Rose Holmer gives the film a spectral quality, zeroing on the dark complexions of these teens with the visual tact of films like Moonlight and Mudbound (review below).

AKIRA (1988) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Essential 250 Films

Back in 1988, a team of visual artists with a budget of approximately 8 million dollars led by Katsuhiro Otomo release a seminal film in the history of anime that has had an influence that extends well beyond the genre. Akira is a statement to the power of forward motion and kinetic energy in animation and film as a whole. Per the great Roger Ebert, Akira “releases the mind” with infinite possibilities, in which every frame is painstakingly detailed, and where the unexpected comes directly from the hands of talented visual artists.

Though Akira can be accused of succumbing to violence, on most occasions the way violence is staged and designed is nothing but awe-inspiring. The music, which is filled with robotic-like sounds, screeches, alarms and machine hums, lends to the visual freneticism, complementing its dystopian and futuristic setting with confidence.

Akira, which I watched at home, “limited” to a 55” UHD television, is a cinematic journey of such force and visual splendor that I look forward to the day in which I will be able to watch it on the big screen.

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Essential 250 Films

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a crystalline demonstration of his artistry and craft. From the sweeping opening to its devilish ending Phantom Thread flirts with the audience, seducing us into the mystique of its fashionable world until we are willing to participate in and root for the twisted romance between Reynolds Woodcock, an incredible Daniel-Day Lewis, and Alma, the breathtaking Vicky Krieps in a career-making performance.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s characters manage to be both perfect vessels to a story, and individuals that gain dimension and complexity as the film unfolds.

Reynolds as the man-child with mom issues and a taste for beautiful women, and Alma as the seemingly innocent country girl who revels in the artistry of fashion and who is willing to match and surpass Reynolds’ self-delusion.

If that were not enough, Phantom Thread also gives room to the wonderful Leslie Manville in a restrained and mannered performance that ends up being the most grounded and approachable of the bunch; and to composer and virtuous musician Johnny Greenwood who creates a beautiful score that is as accomplished as the one he made for There Will be Blood.

A QUIET PASSION (2016) [ 2.5/5 ]

With this period piece director Terence Davies suffers a similar faith than Stanley Kubrick with Barry Lyndon. Like the great auteur before him, Davies’ made a film so concerned with being a convincing representation of the period that he forgot to give it some life. For most of its running time we witness the degradation of Emily Dickison, whose poetry never gained notoriety while she lived. Often, the film is content enough with conversations that are nothing more than linguistic battles that demonstrate, with increasing tragedy, the inner frustrations of Dickinson as she buries loved ones and lives within the confines of her family home.

The film’s relevance lies almost entirely on technical aspects, no less of which is Cynthia Nixon’s fantastic lead performance.

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT (2017) [ 3/5 ]

Above all else, Our Souls at Night is a chance, perhaps the last, to watch two legendary actors like Robert Redford and Jane Fonda feed off each other on screen and deliver two very solid performances. Without their chemistry and delivery Our Souls at Night would succumb to the pace and modesty of the reality it introduces us to, even if the script is charming and sweet enough to bake a batch of Apple pies.

MUDBOUND (2017) [ 4/5 ]

In the age of #metoo and #oscarssowhite, Mudbound feels like a statement that shows to reluctant film studios that there are infinite stories waiting to be told from the perspective of those whose voices have been marginalized.

African American director Dee Rees presents us with a Mississippi we had not seen in film. Hers is as beautiful as it is unforgiving, relentless with its rain and its mud. The people, white and black, bound by the land, even if the majority resists and fights the need for union and harmony. Dee Rees gives light and humanity to the black and white family in equal measure, highlighting the love and hope of the first, and the selfishness and despair of the second.

Mudbound is also a beautiful story, filled with characters we can empathize and antogonize with, wrapping around you and never letting go. One of the best films of 2017.

More short reviews to come in the next post…