My favorite movie in the Mummy franchise is The Phantom, but hardly anyone else seems to agree with me. “Nay,” says Naysayer, “you’re mistaken — Phantom is a superhero movie.” Though Naysayer’s rationale is increasingly appropriate such that one can visit a cinema and blindly say that’s a superhero movie and usually be correct, the film adaptation of the long-running Phantom comic strip seems much more at home in a category with The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tomb Raider, Romancing the Stone and all of the other Indiana Jonesey flicks that muster at least a small degree of fresh fun. When asked to think of a superhero movie, it’s doubtful The Phantom leaps to mind. Is archaeology adventure an acceptable genre label? We know Naysayer’s answer.
But this was 1996, long before the homogenization of the superflick under the all-encompassing tyranny of the Shared Universe Model. Maybe in 1996 there was nothing at all to blink at: Phantom, a comic-strip costumed vigilante, is up on the screen saving people and slamming evil. This is a superhero. Maybe today there’s just a more rote formula for such a thing, and maybe calling Phantom otherwise is an act of desperation.
David Lean’s T. E. Lawrence film is a visual adventure boasting some of the most impressive and ingenious staging you’ll ever see. One might be tempted to test Steven Soderbergh’s theory on the removal of sound and color from Raiders of the Lost Ark, an exercise meant to highlight how well Spielberg’s film is staged and framed, although sitting through a soundless black-and-white version of the nearly four-hour Lawrence of Arabia seems an especially colossal task. So, instead, we’ll examine here a few of the visual cues that drive Lawrence the film and inform Lawrence the character, and in so doing might uncover what Lean’s epic has to say about the explorer’s fabled legacy.
One would be remiss to announce a discussion of the visuals of Lawrence of Arabia without beginning at the most famous smash cut of the film, one of the most famous smash cuts of any film:
This is how Lawrence gets to Arabia. Due respect to the Old-West-to-South-America-via-NYC montage of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but in Lawrence the journey to Arabia is not as significant as the journey in Arabia; but Lean’s matching of the two images does more than save time. There’s an ever-so-slight grin that Lawrence gives just before he extinguishes the match, enough to suggest a truth that he knows and we do not. Fire is one of the primary visual symbols of the film, and in retrospect the correlation between Lawrence’s ego and the story told by that single cut is highly revealing.
One week from today is the wide release of Jurassic World, the highly-anticipated fourth installment in the dinosaur franchise that began with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Early reviews indicate that Colin Trevorrow, World‘s director, has delivered a more worthy successor to the original film than Spielberg’s sequel The Lost World or Joe Johnston’s follow-up Jurassic Park III. If that isn’t enough in and of itself, we might root for World to actually be as good as Park rather than just “better than the crappy ones”.
Short of having actually seen Jurassic World yet (I’d be so biased if I had!), the premise is already more akin to the original tale than to the rehashed visits of the second and third films. We won’t speculate too hard about World, and it will certainly need more than a cool premise to survive sequelitis; still, it’s already obvious that the storytelling mentality is focused on a particular point in time that falls between creation and destruction, and the importance of that theme in the Jurassic franchise shouldn’t be brushed aside. In fact, it’s an significant storytelling element of many of Spielberg’s films, and many of Michael Crichton’s works as well.
When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 the primary news item was very definitely Star Wars and the announcement of a new expansion on the galaxy far, far away. The Force Awakens comes this December, but talk is already turning to Indiana Jones, another Lucasfilm franchise, and the possibility of continuing that as well (because distilling Raiders into Crystal Skull wasn’t enough). What’s next? THX 1138? Howard the Duck? Radioland Murders? Perhaps even an original idea? Probably none of those for a few years, while Wars and Jones get the attention they deserve. Eventually, though, they’ll probably remake Willow.
Starring Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer, Willow is a fantasy epic set in what seems to be a mystical land of fairies, witches, warriors and little magicians. Willow Ufgood is our unlikely hero, tasked with the safe passage of a prophesied infant through the dangerous lands outside the borders of his home. He seems like a simpleton, a mere farmer, but there’s a lot more to Willow than meets the eye. Importantly, despite the evil tyranny he encounters in his quest, Willow remains one of the most endlessly optimistic characters in all of fantasy cinema. This made Ron Howard the perfect director at the time to handle Willow’s journey, as his previous Cocoon was similarly steeped in magic and optimism. Davis is instantly iconic as Willow. Meanwhile, Val Kilmer plays a drunk version of Aragorn.
A career retrospective on Alec Guinness runs at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston this week, starting with the Ealing Comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. There are a lot of actors and actresses today who get credit for switching between drama and comedy, and it seems there are more and more dark-and-gritty roles being taken by comedians these days (see: Jonah Hill, Chris Pratt, Jesse Eisenberg, Adam Sandler). It’s worked the other way, too, which is why Tom Cruise shows up in Tropic Thunder and ends up being the best part.
Guinness was something else. This isn’t a dramatic actor trying comedy any more than his role in Bridge on the River Kwai is a comedic actor attempting drama — it’s just Alec Guinness, for lack of a more detailed explanation, completely at home in both arenas. Granted The Lavender Hill Mob isn’t a laughfest of super-zany proportions (Guinness nailed those too, though, with Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers), but it’s a far cry from Kwai.
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Theatre Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
Not long ago Steven Soderbergh removed all of the color and sound from Raiders of the Lost Ark in an attempt to better study the visual staging of Steven Spielberg’s massively influential adventure film. The theory – according to Soderbergh – is that “a movie should work with the sound off”, that the coordination and arrangement of the visual elements of the story should, essentially, tell the same story that the dialogue tells. With Raiders, the theory certainly holds water: from the thick rainforest and cobwebbed tunnels of the opening action sequence to the quiet Archaeology classroom of the very next scene, from the snake-infested underground temple to the desert chase, the staging and pacing of the film is continuously surefooted. “No matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are,” Soderbergh writes – and the attention he calls to the visual aspect of Raiders proves that Spielberg’s dedication to a strong sense of story isn’t compromised by a black-and-white color palette or a bass-laden electronica soundtrack.
To put it another way: Indiana Jones, even with these major elements stripped away, is still Indiana Jones. The color is one thing, but you’d think the absence of the iconic “Raiders March” would really shake things up for the worse. The John Williams score is inextricable from Indy, arguably as much a part of the adventurer as his hat or his bullwhip. You wouldn’t take the Bond theme away from James Bond any more than you’d take away his tux or his martini, for fear that the character before you wouldn’t seem like the same familiar spy anymore. Indy seems the same way, seems like a character so reliant on these iconic elements – but while Soderbergh’s exercise proved its point with regards to scene staging, it also pointed out what sets Indy apart.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has no shortage of detractors. Whenever a beloved film or film series receives a new treatment or installment, most people – myself included – are bound to vocalize their qualms. We said why can’t they leave well enough alone? We said why does everything have to be CGI? With the fourth Indy flick, we said a whole bunch of stuff that shouldn’t be reprinted. So yeah: Crystal Skull is the weakest Indiana Jones for a few reasons. But let’s find something nice to say about it for a change, shall we?
Harrison Ford returns to one of his most famous characters after a quarter-century hiatus (he appeared in one or two movies in the meantime) and most of the old crew returns with him: Steven Spielberg directs from a story by George Lucas, composer John Williams scores the film, and Karen Allen revives the role of Marion Ravenwood. Cate Blanchett plays (ahem, overplays) the primary antagonist Dr. Irina Spalko, and the best things about her are her hair and her name. Among the other new additions to the Indy legend is the consistent use of CGI, which was used sparingly in the first three adventure films in favor of practical effects. It feels at times as if somebody wanted to cram as many CG shots into this thing as possible, and many of those instances are very unfortunately unconvincing. Also: aliens.
Peter Weir’s first American film was the Harrison Ford vehicle Witness, released to commercial and critical acclaim in 1985. The Australian director was originally set to make his stateside debut with The Mosquito Coast, but a last-minute loss of financing would leave time for Weir to make a very different kind of picture first.
As a “Harrison Ford movie” — a label which immediately evokes Raiders and Blade Runner — Witness probably falls flat. John Book ain’t an adventurer, an action hero, or a possible cyborg (or is he?) and Witness ain’t a popcorn blockbuster. You can imagine the studio executives wincing as they reluctantly finance something that, frankly, looks excruciatingly boring as an abstract. Man goes to Amish country. Protects small boy. Woohoo.