Book Review: George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones


Author: Brian Jay Jones
Title: George Lucas: A Life
Narrator: Jay Snyder
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2016)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Jim Henson: The Biography 
Summary/Review:

This is a straightforward biography that traces the life of filmmaker George Lucas through his childhood, education, and various creative endeavors.  As a child of a strict father in Modesto, California, Lucas took an interest in old movie serials, comic books, and fast cars. When he went to University of Southern California he chose to study cinematography because he wanted to do something in the arts and it sounded like something his father wouldn’t immediately dismiss. Young Lucas showed a talent for experimental filmmaking, especially editing, that made him stand out in his class.  

After graduation, Lucas befriended other up and coming young directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. Jones does a good job of explicating the creative process Lucas went through in creating his most famous films including THX-1138, American Graffiti, Willow, Red Tails, and of course the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. There’s also considerable detail on Lucas developing  LucasFilm, Industrial Light and Magic, and The Skywalker Ranch, all enabling the type of creativity and independence he sought out of reach of the Hollywood moguls.

Qualities of Lucas such as perfectionism and weak interpersonal skills are shown to be both his strengths and weaknesses in film making. His workaholic nature proved too much for his troubled first marriage with the skilled film editor Marcia Griffin, but later in life he would have a more successful relationship with business woman Mellody Hobson.

Jones does a good job of getting inside the life and influences of a private and complex person without being gossipy about it. Lucas’ contributions to movies and the world of entertainment are uncontestable, even if people – including his director friends – believe he was capable of much more. Lucas for his part remains confident in his choices and accepts that audiences may not always be pleased with his vision. 

Recommended books:

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Title: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Release Date: May 22, 2008
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

When The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out in 2008, I was excited to see a new Indiana Jones movie after such a long wait.  But life intervened and I didn’t get to around to seeing the movie, and then I heard all the reviews about how bad it is.  I decided to refrain from watching the movie up until now since I was watching the previous three installments and decided it was time to complete the series to date.

I’m glad I did, because while Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not quite on par with Raiders and The Last Crusade, it does share a lot of those movies’ sense of adventure, humor, and warmth. The big criticism I’ve seen of this movie is the “nuke the fridge” scene where Indy survives an atomic bomb test blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator.  Honestly, this didn’t seem to me any less plausible than Indy surviving being dragged behind a truck or falling from an airplane in an inflatable raft.  There are other issues that did trouble me though that I will address soon enough.

Indy’s sidekick in this movie is Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a 50s greaser kid who comes to ask for Indy’s aid in finding his mother.  I’d not seen LeBeouf in anything else before, but I thought he did a good job of portraying a younger adventurer who’s worldview is different from Indy’s but still follows a moral code.  Ray Winstone plays George “Mac” Michale, a friend of Indy’s from when they were spies during WWII (wouldn’t THAT make a great movie), who is a twist on a trusted ally like Sallah.  The main villain is Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko, who is hilariously over the top in her performance. The biggest treat is the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood who has a strong chemistry with Ford as they act as if they really do have a long, unseen history in the intervening 30 years.

The movie features some great action setpieces, including a motorcycle chase in a Connecticut college town, and a jeep chase/sword fight in the Amazon jungle. Being set in the 1950s, the villains are naturally from the Soviet Union.  Like the third season of Stranger Things, this movie has the annoying Cold War cliche of Soviet military detachments operating within the United States which just gets under my skin.  We never saw Nazis operating in the United States in the first and third films, for example.  Much of the movie is set in the Amazon region of South America where Indy and his comrades fight the Soviets on neutral ground. Unfortunately, in South America the film runs into cultural competency problems with insensitive depictions of indigenous tribes.

Even worse, the whole “crystal skulls” concept is rooted in the idea of Ancient Aliens (or in this case “inter-dimensional beings”) who are alleged to have taught indigenous peoples how to use technology.  The whole pseudo-history of Ancient Aliens is just a racist concept and there’s not getting around it despite how the filmmakers try to twist away from it.  The whole third act of the movie is built around the Ancient Aliens (and whole lot of CGI) and it his here where the movie falls apart after being quite the entertaining and rollicking adventure for its first 2/3s.  Still, it’s far superior to The Temple of Doom and I would enjoy watching it again.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)


Title: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Release Date: May 24, 1989
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

To win back the enthusiasm of viewers turned of by The Temple of Doom, the story of The Last Crusade adopts many of the features of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It begins with a prologue not directly related to the main plot, this time depicting Indiana Jones as a teenager, wonderfully portrayed by River Phoenix.  The main story starts with Indy teaching at college and being approached for a project.  Side characters Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) are back for another ride. And the villains are once again Nazis, with many of them receiving satisfying punches.

The similarities though only serve to help undercut expectations.  Indy’s putative love interest in this movie is Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody, who’s paucity of subsequent film credits mystifies me), a brave and clever art professor.  But in one of the great cinematic heel turns, she ends up being a villain in league with the Nazis.

The biggest twist, of course, is the presence of Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery), a seemingly somber medieval studies professor obsessed more with finding the Holy Grail than raising his son.  The chemistry between Ford and Connery is amazing, and Connery is excellent at taking his career as an action hero and funneling it into an older and wiser man.

The Last Crusade has great actions sequences, terrific humor, and a lot of heart.  It is a deserving second recipient of a 5-star rating for an installment of the Indiana Jones franchise.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)


Title: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

Even as a child, The Temple of Doom failed to live up to its predecessor.  Sure there parts I liked that still stand up, mainly the action set pieces of jumping out of an airplane in an inflatable raft and the mine cart race.  The ick factor is strong in this movie from a meal of insects and monkey brains to a cave full of live insects to a man’s beating heart being ripped from his body.  I’m less squeamish as an adult but still feel these scenes are gratuitous.

As a kid, I liked Indy’s sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan).  With the perspective of an adult, I see he’s another example of “80’s Movie Kid” – the cute but precocious wisecracking kids who reached their nadir with Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.  Short Round isn’t overly obnoxious, and gets a few good laugh lines, but it’s distressing how much of his character is rooted in racial stereotypes.  The depiction of Indian people and the Hindu religion in this movie is even more insulting.

While Raiders offered Marion Ravenwood, a woman capable of being an adventured on par with Indiana Jones, The Temple of Doom features Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) as a nightclub singer completely unprepared for trekking the wilderness and fighting for magical stones.  Arguments can be made for whether this is sexist or just a realistic depiction of a “fish out of water,” but the thing that troubles me is that Indiana Jones basically abducts her from the nightclub and takes her on the airplane.  There is no reason within the movie’s own logic for Willie to be on this adventure and she has every right to do much more than whine and complain about her mistreatment.

One aspect of this movie I’d completely forgotten about was the part where Indy is put in a trance and forced to serve Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).  It’s telling that a talented but stubborn actor like Harrison Ford seems to be mailing it in during these scenes, as if he’s frustrated with the lazy storytelling.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an ugly film in many ways and it hasn’t aged well.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


Title: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Release Date: June 12, 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

When I was a kid growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, my family frequently saw movies at the State Cinema, a second-run movie theater that charged only $1-2 for a ticket to see a movie a few months after it had been released (a big savings on the scandalous $5 ticket prices at first-run theater).  Too be clear, this was not an arthouse theater showing movies that were many years old, all of the movies at the State were movies released in the past year.

The one exception was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which for some reason the State kept bringing back again and again for years after it’s 1981 release.  And we went to see it a lot! It’s almost certainly the movie I’ve watched on the big screen the most times.  And yet, without any intention of doing so, I hadn’t watched it in a loooong time.  The last time I remember watching the movie was 25 years ago when I was in college, and since I’d taken several archaeology classes was a bit snobbish about it to.

So I watched this movie with somewhat fresh eyes.  There are a lot of things I liked as a kid that I’ve discovered have not held up well and are very problematic. Thankfully, Raiders of the Lost Ark is not one of them. It does have it flaws in cultural competence, no doubt, but avoids a lot of the stereotypes present in Hollywood films.  For example, there are a lot of Egyptian characters in the film – some are good, some are evil, most are in the background but none of them come across as the “evil Muslim terrorist” trope common in movies made after Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Probably the strangest thing in this movie is that the most prominent “Egyptian” character in this movie, Sallah, is played by a Welsh actor, John Rhys-Davies.  I never cottoned on to this as a kid, but Sallah’s accent actually sounds pretty Welsh.  It’s unfortunate that an Arabic actor was not cast for the part, and especially so since Rhys-Davies has become a prominent Islamophobe in recent decades, but his performance is respectful and very entertaining.

I’m also impressed by Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, who is a clever and capable character at a time when most women were not (the big exception is Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies).  She really is the equal of Indiana Jones as an adventurer and intellect.  In retrospect, it’s disappointing that Karen Allen didn’t get her own Marion Ravenwood spinoff movie in the 1980s.

Harrison Ford’s performance reminds me of why he’s so deserving of his acclaim as one of the great actors of our time. He is subtle in his gestures in a way that conveys a lot of emotion and humor.  And unlike Han Solo, his Indiana Jones is extremely confident without being arrogant, and shows his vulnerability at times.

The action set pieces and special effects which were so revolutionary at the time seem to hold up well (I’m sure there are some people who can pick them apart, but they work for me).  Lots of Nazis get punched, which remains satisfying.  As a kid, I was affected by the horror elements of the movie (such as the faces melting when the ark is opened) but I’d completely forgotten one of the most terrifying scenes when Marion gets caught in chamber of skeletons who are shrieking for some reason.

The depiction of archaeology is still rubbish – they are clearly treasure hunters who actually destroy a number of antiquities in the process of acquiring the Ark of the Covenant.  But then again “Raiders” is right there in the title, so you are warned.

Despite its flaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark is still an all-time classic and I can’t give it any less than five stars.

Rating: *****