Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

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: September & October films (part II)

Continued from the previous post, below are my impressions of the films I watched in October:


An entertaining Mexican dramedy that follows a housewife who must keep her life together while searching for her missing husband. Most of the film’s pleasures lie not on the story, which is derivative and predictable, but on the detours that actress Cecilia Suarez must take as Elvira to uncover the truth about her husband and rediscover herself.

I also realized midway through the film that it relies on the kind of silly hispanic humor that may not fully translate to non-Latin audiences.

FORCE MAJOURE (2014) [ 3.5/5 ]

Rarely has a film about the fragility of love and marriage has been so satisfyingly uncomfortable to watch. At first, Force Majoure is about a woman’s struggle to reaffirm her worth in a lopsided and selfish relationship, only to later become a story about a man’s newfound respect for his loved ones. It was not only surprising to see the film change its angle after an hour, but it was also disappointing. I much preferred the first hour, which included a fantastic sequence of an avalanche that threatens the life of our characters.

Filmed in the snowy heights of Scandinavia, Force Majoure is also a beautiful film to look at, both for the gorgeous vistas, but also for its architecture.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) [ 4/5 ]

The much-anticipated sequel to the sci-fi classic is an achievement in that it manages to build onto and expand the universe of the original, without feeling like an overly respectful repetition.

Like its predecessor, it moves forward meditatively, enveloping us in its futuristic world, set some 30 years after the events of the original. Once again, the film is an exploration about what it means to be human, suggesting that it resides not on intelligence but on our capacity to show empathy.

Crucial to the success of the film are director Denis Villeneuve and storied cinematographer Richard Deakins. The two create one of the most stunningly beautiful films ever made in what could finally prove to be Deakins’ turn for Oscar gold.

Unsurprisingly, Ryan Gosling also nails his starring role as the brooding and introspective detective whose job to discontinue old Replicant models poses a moral quandary from early on.

As the trailers showed, Blade Runner also reintroduces Harrison Ford some 30 years later, whose role here remains key to the Blade Runner saga even if he only shows up in the latter stages. What is even better than his return to a much remembered character is that Ford gives one of his most nuanced performances to date.

THE LAST WORD (2017) [ 3/5 ]

A cute family-friendly comedy with the kind of traditional 3-act story of an old lady who, in the space of 90 minutes of film reel, and no more than a few weeks’ worth of real time, undergoes a profound philosophical transformation as her life approaches an end.

As predictable and unoriginal as the story may be, there are pleasures to be found within the film, mostly delivered by the great Shirley McClain in a role that gives her plenty to do even if it means that the characters around her are flat and one-dimensional.

SPIELBERG (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

A lengthy and surprisingly nuanced examination of the life and work of one of cinema’s most influential and talented directors who, in the course of 4 decades, has also managed to shape pop culture and break every kind of box office record.

With unprecedented access to Spielberg himself, some of his famous and not-so-famous friends, family and colleagues, the film offers a once-in-a-lifetime perspective into the mind of a great artist.

As a cinephile I found it endlessly fascinating and informative. The film manages to capture some of the motivations and behind-the-scenes work of a master of the medium. In accompanying his oeuvre with some details on his personal life, which he has always kept away from public scrutiny, we get a glimpse to the kinds of things that have influenced the content of his work and motivated his desire to make movies.

Ultimately, it tends to feel like a bit self-congratulatory but, when his work is put together in a single documentary, one can’t help but be in awe of his skill and the timeliness of his career choices.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) [ 3.5/5 ]

A Hollywood classic found in many best-ever lists that had been a blind spot for me for much too long.

The Night of the Hunter is Charles Laughton’s one and only project as a feature film director and is, by every account, a terribly influential piece that gave us one of cinema’s most indelible villains, The Preacher, portrayed with theatrical panache by Robert Mitchum.

Like the performance itself, the piece is flamboyant in its biblical allegories, with towns that bear no trace of reality, and adult characters that exist not as people, but as instruments to tell a story about good and evil.

Though it doesn’t have the kind of attention to detail and rigorous construction of other Hollywood films of the time, The Night of the Hunter excels where others don’t, carving itself a place in the history of film by being bold and unique.

1922 (2017) [ 3/5 ]

A slow-burning horror drama about the psychological ramifications of murder. The film, which was backed by Netflix and probably saved from a quick death as a feature in theaters, stars a very good Thomas Jane playing a scruffy Southern farmer willing to commit the greatest of sins in order to save his lifestyle and his manly pride.

The film is largely effective in its mental and emotional explorations, but it fails at delivering a story with enough of a heartbeat to keep us engaged for much of its long two hours of running time.

HELLRAISER (1987) [ 1.5/5 ]

Few movies in the history of cinema owe their fame to so little. Hellraiser is a terribly executed piece of film that is filled with sequencing problems, poor acting, non-sensical characters, awful cinematography and clumsy editing. My interest in Hellraiser was lost within the first five minutes as the film wastes no time in jumping from one plot point to another to tell its nightmarish and gruesome tale.

The only noteworthy aspect lies in the design of the so-called Cenophites, evil creatures from another dimension that trap their summoner in an endless cycle of extreme pleasure and pain.

A “horror classic” that owes much of its fame to the non-sensical insanity it puts us through.

GIRLS TRIP (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

All similarities to Bridesmaids aside, Girls Trip is a highly overrated comedy filled with half-baked characters, a messy script and at least a half dozen jokes that don’t quite land. What truly surprises me is that this film, which as derivative and commonplace as you’ll likely to find, received so much praise.

Thankfully, there is an occasional funny scene and lost in the middle of it all there is something to be said about the empowering feminism that it tries to embrace.

Months in Review: December & January (2016)


How quickly do months fly by when you are busy. It seems like only a week ago I posted my last review. As quickly as my newfound motivation to blog a bit more came to me on January 1st, as quickly it evaporated not from a lack of desire, but from a lack of energy.

With a bit of a delay, I share with you my brief thoughts on the films I had the chance to watch in the last month of 2015 and the first of 2016. A total of 21 films were watched, 12 in December and 9 in January. The average rating was a very good 3.35 out of 5. The following are ordered in the way they were seen:

Continue reading Months in Review: December & January (2016)

Months in review: June & July

Jurassic World

There comes a time in everyone’s life where the sun, the beach, and enjoying the outdoors takes precedent whenever one feels they have an hour or two to spare. Such has been the case for me over the last few months, even if Chicago, and its often unmerciful weather, has attempted to hijack a weekend or two with its northerly wintry winds and stray summer showers. For these reasons, and maybe a couple of others I will not get into right now, I have abandoned my blog yet again.

Continue reading Months in review: June & July

Film review: Lincoln (2012)


Genre: Drama

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln)

Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Goodwin (novel)

Director: Steven Spielberg

From the convincing performances of the cast to the careful detailing of the time period it encapsulates, Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln feels more like a documentary (and a damn good one at that) than a feature-length dramatic film.

Continue reading Film review: Lincoln (2012)